The press guide for Close to the Sun makes the explicit point that the first-person horror adventure is NOT BioShock. Yet, the similarity between the two games is one of Close to the Sun’s greatest selling points. After all, it’s been six years since the release of BioShock Infinite – and a hefty 12 years since the release of the first BioShock – so anything in the same vein is welcome. This said, Close to the Sun has a strong identity of its own, helping it to avoid feeling like a knock-off (sorry, Zero Punctuation, I disagree with your assessment). And for the most part it’s an emotionally and visually engaging experience well worth having.
From Italian developers Storm in a Teacup, Close to the Sun is set in an alternate 1897, where the rivalry between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla has advanced human technology dramatically. To protect his inventions from corporate espionage and avoid stifling government legislation, Tesla has moved his work to the Helios, the largest ship in the world, and recruited the world’s greatest scientific minds (some potentially even against their will).
Among these scientists is physicist Ada Archer, who is key to an ambitious project to provide clean wireless energy for the entire planet. Something goes wrong, though, and Ada has just enough time to summon her journalist sister Rose to the Helios. Playing as Rose, you arrive to find the ship under quarantine for good reason. Vicious monsters are roaming the decks, slaughtering anyone who crosses their path. Then there are the human monsters using the chaos as an excuse to feed their depraved appetites. Your mission is simple: find and save Ada.
So, yes, Close to the Sun is reminiscent of BioShock in terms of overarching concept and Art Deco aesthetic. It’s far removed in terms of gameplay, however. BioShock was essentially a shooter with RPG elements. Close to the Sun strips out the combat and instead requires the player to navigate the cavernous Helios, solving puzzles to progress through the game’s ten chapters and 6-7 hour duration. Not once does Rose wield a weapon. Faced with enemies, all she can do is flee, triggering breathless, brutal chase sequences.
While these patches are frequently throw-your-controller frustrating, as you dash blindly into unknown areas and dead ends (forcing a replay), they certainly get your heart rate up. Close to the Sun packs surprising emotional wallop, whether ramping up the tension or offering a reprieve through moments of humour, sass and even tenderness. The relationship between Rose and her brilliant little sister Ada is touching and believable. Then there are Rose’s radio interactions with Aubrey King, the head of Maintenance, who’s gone slightly mad with cabin fever while locked in a control room with the corpse of his best friend.
The voice acting in Close to the Sun is strong. Emily Moment as Rose reminds of Ashly Burch, combining likeable spirit and a growing weariness with her hellish situation on the Helios, and the flaming hoops she’s forced to jump through. Far more than a personality-less player shell, Rose displays the full range of human emotion, including having panic attacks when faced with the hard R-rated horror around her. Make no mistake, Close to the Sun is definitely a game for mature players only.
Still, the best thing about Close to the Sun is its world design. Moody and gorgeous, the Helios is hands-down my favourite game setting of the year. Each deck and ship section has its own unique flavour, from the gloomy fire-and-flood battered engine room to the hotel-esque arrivals area, scientists’ living quarters and, my personal favourite, an opulent theatre.
Each area contains collectibles which enrich the story of the Helios and its inhabitants. You can tell that these stages have been lovingly created, and the environmental storytelling spotlights some of the most incredible-yet-true aspects of Tesla’s story. The player gets up close with the inventor’s creations which range from x-ray machines, neon lights and helicopter-airplanes ahead of their time, to the more fantastic lightning harvesters, earthquake machines and death rays.
Again, the developers are opposed to the game being called a walking sim, but Close to the Sun is strongest in these quieter moments where the player is encouraged to explore and build up layers of understanding in the process.
While the narrative and world help Close to the Sun to shine bright, other aspects cast a shadow over the experience. The aggravating chase sequences have already been mentioned, and they become more common and unforgiving towards the end of the game. From a technical standpoint, the console version experienced some distracting graphics chugging towards the end as well. Worst of all, though, Close to the Sun concludes without resolving its key central mystery. Repeatedly during the game Rose is told that everything will be explained, but Close to the Sun ends on a cliff-hanger, clearly designed to lead into a sequel. This undoes a lot of goodwill generated towards the game.
Despite these flaws, I would still recommend a playthrough of Close to the Sun. It’s atmospheric, it effortlessly gets under your skin, and while not subtle – neither was BioShock, let’s be honest – it offers gratifying stimulation for the eyes and brain.
Close to the Sun is available for all consoles and PC (currently exclusive to the Epic Store).
Last Updated: November 20, 2019