When you open up Close to the Sun, the first thing that comes to mind is Bioshock. Beyond just the font, which is the same, the plot is similar. You have to take a boat to the middle of the ocean to board a mysterious scientific vessel that's become a home for the best the world has to offer. You're then thrust into a mystery where you're surprisingly involved and have to overcome experiments gone wrong and the hubris of man to make it out alive. Yeah, definitely familiar.
Close to the Sun, luckily, does enough to move beyond Bioshock's shadow. It's a horror exploration game that leans heavily into the latter element while crafting an intriguing mystery based on everybody's favorite late 19th-century mad scientist Nikola Tesla. It's a breezy six hours long. It manages a few good scares while also building a version of this era of scientific advancement that feels both rooted in history and fresh, especially to those who have a passing notion of names like Tesla and Edison. Developers Storm in a Teacup had a vision, and it's all clear and apparent in the final product.
While the game came out on PC in May, it's now out on Xbox One, along with the PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch. Does Close to the Sun manage to live up to its lofty title, or is it worth a skip? Does having it on a console improve it in any way?
Horror and Tesla
Bottom line: While the game has an intriguing premise, an attractive art style, and sits at a breezy length, it doesn't do enough. It wants to fly close to the sun, but it can barely get off the ground.
- Enough room to explore
- Great art style
- Good length
- Who doesn't love Tesla?
- Scares aren't consistent
- Becomes repetitive
- Relationships are shallow
- Story has too many loose ends
- Xbox version has technical problems
Close to the Sun: What I liked
The game jumps quickly into setting up the mystery. You play Rose Archer, a journalist who receives a mysterious letter from her scientist sister Ada who's been working with Tesla on Helios, a gigantic vessel that's become a makeshift city for people at the top of their STEM fields. She needs your help, and as you approach Helios, you realize that things have certainly gone awry. There's nobody to greet you, a lot of the lights are out, the doors are locked, and, as you quickly discover, there are bodies everywhere. It doesn't seem like the best place to get work done.
While the pacing is slow at first, the initial mystery is enough to keep most players occupied through some grindy parts. For instance, it takes a while to meet Aubrey, a man trapped in maintenance that reaches out to you via your communication device, and who becomes one of the prominent voice guides in the game. The stakes get properly raised, but only after you spend 20-30 minutes trudging through the living quarters looking for various keycards and clues.
You might think of Bioshock, but luckily, Close to the Sun does enough to move beyond Bioshock's shadow.
Plus, the aesthetic adds to the enjoyment and how far the player is willing to give into the game. Setting it in an alternate universe where Tesla's company Wardenclyffe not only got off the ground but managed to become successful enough to attract all the world's top scientists allows the designers to have fun with the gears, steam, and brass that dot every level. Tesla coils are everywhere, which is a great style element, but also creates obstacles that the player has to get around.
Overall there isn't too much to worry about when traversing levels beyond occasional tesla coils gone awry and some blue mist. The game mostly lets you explore each level and complete quests so you can move on. It wants you to take you time and find collectibles in the form of newspaper clippings, company memos, and other documents. Some flesh out a subplot about how Edison might've been sending corporate spies into Helios (more on this later) or just show off other famous scientists that have visited. You get a good idea of what life might have been like before everything went to hell, which then helps to explain why Ada might've moved there.
While the game takes its time, it does know when to up the ante. There are two main threats: a rogue killer with a knife and something more paranormal and the game balances when each rears its head. With each, you don't have any means of defense; only your sprinting. There are a few sequences where you have to run down unknown corridors to escape from certain terrors. These are the toughest parts of the game — and I died quite a few times, but luckily the game autosaves often — and test your reaction time. One tiny mistake and you're dead.
One small note: Close to the Sun creates clean scares, where something might jump out at you only when you're looking at it. It's a game design trick that's only fascinating if you're into the technical details, but it's effective.
Close to the Sun: What I didn't like
While Close to the Sun has a lot of pieces that work separately, put together, they don't add up to much. The biggest disappointment here is that there could've been so much more. It's why after completing the game and sitting down to write this review, I found that not a lot of elements stuck around.
For example, there are monsters that, at points in the game, chase you around, and can tear you apart. Considering where they come from, you'd think they'd be all over the ship. However, there are only a handful — maybe two or three — that you run into. There may be more running around Helios that you don't run into, but there aren't enough to be threatening. It feels inconsistent, like the developers only pull tricks out of their hat when it's convenient or makes sense for the story.
While the narrative has a lot of potential, it never quite lives up to what could have been.
The same goes for the flashback mechanic that becomes more prominent as the story goes on. Rose will see the glowing outlines of people and what they were doing on the ship. It helps in certain areas where you might not know where to go, but it only appears when the game writes itself into a corner. Is there no way for Rose to know a bit of information? Throw in some paranormal elements to help her out.
The horror also only seems to come into play when the game needs it to, whether it's to get in the way of Rose's progress or to make an otherwise dull area more exciting. At first, this works to keep the player's heart rate up, but they don't happen enough to be consistent. They also, over time, become repetitive, making each encounter seem like a chore.
While the narrative has a lot of potential, it never quite lives up to what could have been. The crux of it is clearly the relationship between Rose and Ada, but you never get enough detail to help justify why either would risk their lives for the other. There are glimpses — like how their mother died while they were young — but their interactions stay on the surface. I don't know anything about either character beyond that Rose is plucky and sarcastic, and Ada is determined to a fault. The only reason given for why Rose would put herself into danger for Ada is that they're sisters, which isn't enough.
A lot of the various threads, specifically that one about whether Edison was planning on sabotage, get unanswered or are dropped and forgotten. The main plot about Ada's research and how she may have gone too far does have an ending, but it feels rushed. The game ends on a definitive note, but there was still a lot that could've been included. It reads like Storm in a Teacup wanted to release DLC or had ideas but didn't have the time to include them.
Close to the Sun is an experience that inadvertently hinges on unfulfilled promises. The scares never go far enough, nor are they consistent enough to keep the tension at a satisfying level. The character relationships are dull, and the game itself is filled with conveniences that take away from the awe and surprise of playing. I wouldn't be shocked if, for many, the game is forgotten quickly.
The Xbox version of the game has a couple of small problems. At one point, I left the game on pause for a bit, and it decided to restart. It saved my progress, but I still had to go through the level again. Since the game saves often, this was more of an annoyance.
Other times, however, the constant saving became an issue, especially in some of the harder sprinting sequences where I died constantly. It wouldn't restart me at the beginning of the level but at different points throughout, which meant that I was respawned in front of the threat a few times and in front of where I had to go at others.
It's easy to see how the game could've been amazing. It has a distinct style; while it's reminiscent of Bioshock, it manages to stand apart because of how well it meshes with the story and characters at its core. It also understands how to let the player wander and explore, letting them soak in more of the world.
However, despite its ambition, there's nothing else to help the game stand apart from its peers. It's an easy, occasionally fun romp through a steampunk world, but it never goes far enough. The scares aren't that scary, the exploration isn't that open, and the story doesn't end in a place strong enough to justify all the mystery and build-up. It's a game that wanted to be Icarus and fly, ahem, too close to the sun, but couldn't even manage to get too far off the ground.
Who doesn't love some Tesla?
Close to the Sun has an intriguing premise and a great art style, so it might be worth it for a quick run time and its relatively low price on Xbox. Plus, who doesn't love some Tesla coils?
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