Welcome To Helios
Conceptually at least, Close To The Sun is actually a really intriguing game. Combining elements of Bioshock, Sherlock Holmes and first person horrors, Close To The Sun attempts to capture the same wonder and intrigue found in other games but fails to really capitalize on that as well as it perhaps should. Admittedly, the opening few chapters are pretty good at building up the tension but soon after the game devolves frustratingly into a series of chase sequences and puzzle-platform sections that don’t always work well with the narrative.
As you begin the game, you control a journalist named Rose Archer. Set during an alternate 20th century timeline, Rose makes port at Helios, intent on finding her sister. However, what she finds instead is more horrific than she could have imagined, sending her spinning down the gnarly rabbit hole and deeper into the mysteries lurking in the bowels of the ship.
It’s all pretty intriguing stuff and early on, there’s some really good atmosphere-building that helps bring the world to life. Lights flicker, shadows ominously move unnaturally and a few jump scares lurk around the corridors too. It’s all really good stuff but as the game does away with these conventional horror tropes and moves into action territory, Close To The Sun loses its initial appeal. Instead, it leans much more heavily on puzzling and chase sequences, much to its own detriment.
The game is split into ten distinct chapters, with a prologue for good measure to get you accustomed to the controls (more of that later). Each chapter plays out in a relatively similar vain; you receive your mission instructions, search the different rooms and areas of that specific part of the ship and complete puzzles along the way. These range from simple button presses and logic-based environmental hazards, right the way through to memorizing a six digit code to use on the other side of the map.
This ultimately leads into a final action-driven piece which mostly sees you holding the run button and pushing the analog stick forward to escape. This rigid structure dominates most of the play-time here and the longer you progress through, the more the mechanics behind this approach become apparent.
Along the way you control Rose and I have to say, she’s one of the most cumbersome and awkward characters I’ve played as in a while. Jumping feels far too weighty, which works at odds with the actual movement which feels like gliding through the air when moving your player around. I’d really recommended going in and changing the sensitivity of movement for turning too as the default settings feel oddly slow. The result is something that feels awkwardly out of sync to play as and a movement system that can’t quite make its mind up how it wants to play.
Instead of solely relying on puzzles and action though, Close To The Sun also features a fair amount of collectables and goodies for you to grab as you make your way around the Helios. Collectibles help add some context and depth to what’s happening, with a good amount of history on the ship (if you feel like reading up on that of course). Props to the creators though, each level has its own unique collectable theme which I really admired. One level sees all the collectables revolve around schematics in a series of interweaving science labs while another sees you collect room keys and memorabilia during the cabin quarters segment. These are small touches but certainly help to add a little more thought to the world-building and give a sense of believability.
The audio and sound design is pretty good too, although there’s not much in the way of memorable motifs or orchestral pieces to note. Most of the time the audio slots into the background but at times, there’s an unusual cacophonic nature to the sound effects. Between the sizzling electric, soft piano chimes, voice-over on your radio and your own footsteps, the audio can feel a little disjointed as all of these wrestle for dominance in your ears. I can’t help but feel that a little bit of sound mixing during these moments, to quieten down the background noise, may have helped the game.
Close To The Sun is not a bad game but it is an unusually frustrating one. Puzzles have no difficulty spike, sporadically jumping between very simple through to frustrating and unclear. One puzzle late on sees you change the pressure in tanks to explode a reactor that requires a specific approach while another requires you to rotate symbols in a room in the correct way using items dotted around the apartment. While there is a good amount of variety to the puzzles themselves, it does also feel like more could have been done to expand and give a proper curvature to the difficulty.
Despite all this, Close To The Sun is an enjoyable enough first person adventure but it’s also a game that feels like it could have been so much more. It’s not a particularly difficult title and it does have a few stand-out moments worth admiring, especially early on. There’s a keen sense to recreate that Rapture-feel in Bioshock here and as you step aboard the Helios for the first time, the game does come close to achieving that, even going so far as to mirror the same aesthetic and UI seen in that series. Unfortunately Close To The Sun stumbles where it really matters and that’s with its gameplay. With a play-time of around 4-5 hours or so, you can easily blast through this one in a few evenings although it’s unlikely you’ll return to this in a hurry.
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