There are few things in the world of gaming so refreshing than a sequel that completely improves on its predecessor but stays completely true to its own identity. A game that makes adjustments but does not feel it has to reinvent itself or include unnecessary elements to garner popularity. Made with conviction and care. Submerged: Hidden Depths by Uppercut Games is one such game; the rain after a hellish summer heatwave.
A sequel to 2015's Submerged but equally standalone, Hidden Depths is a third-person combat-free exploration game featuring sister and brother duo Miku and Taku. In a world immersed in an endless sea, a massive black plant known as “The Mass” has begun to consume what life is still left above the surface. The only way to stop its advance and heal the destruction in its wake is by returning large magical seeds to their nests. Cursed with supernatural power, Miku can interact with the seeds and spread bountiful life energy. But at what cost? What unnatural phenomena is stirring beneath the waves? And what really happened to this sunken continent?
What kind of review would this be if I didn't start with the obvious? This game is stunning. Absolutely stunning. As you journey with the siblings in their little boat, gorgeous vistas spread out before you with beautifully detailed scenery. Statues are reclaimed by creeping vines of delicate flora. The sea is a dazzling azure and glistens in the sun. A thousand little details can be seen in the remains of a ruined building or magnificent dome. In terms of visuals, Uppercut have outdone themselves. You'll find yourself stopping every few minutes to just look around and drink in the sights around you. And this in turn lends itself perfectly to the type of delicate environmental storytelling opted for.
Let me be clear: this is not a rollercoaster of an adventure. There is no action, no twists and turns, no enemies. Nor should there be. Hidden Depths wears its heart proudly (yet tenderly) on its sleeve as a “relaxporation” adventure. There is an unrivalled aura of calm and tranquillity as you journey across the world exploring ruined structures and discovering different areas. A perfect tonic for the troubles and stresses of both the real and the virtual world.
Two critiques of its predecessor were the lack of freedom and monotony of each building or location. You were almost herded from location to location and each one looked very much the same as the next. Here, you can sail across the landscape and explore at your leisure. Seeds can be sought out in any order, as can collectibles. Pick a direction and cast off. In fact, much of the gentle enjoyment comes from simply riding the waves and observing the wild creatures at play or searching for flotsam for upgrades to your boat. Each stop at a ruined building is peppered with details that give an insight into the world that once was without hammering it home. You feel that this was once a unique and thriving city with people living their day-to-day lives, not knowing how it would all end.
Gameplay mechanics are also reflective of the style – simple and effective. Platforming segments are performed automatically and explorable areas are highlighted in a chosen colour (I went for blue, myself). Playing as either Miku or Taku, you can hop across poles, scale drainpipes and monkey swing your way across the ruins, searching for collectibles along the way. On land, these come in the form of hairstyles, costumes, boat styles and flowers. Uppercut clearly had me in mind! Diary pages and ancient relics also give some insight into the history behind The Mass and the Old World.
All are given legends and markers upon the map to seek them out and finding lookout towers while sailing will highlight new markers to head for. All except the nine styles (costumes/boat styles) at the location of each Mass seed. This is the only real downside of the experience; often you're left with only one object missing that you cannot find for love nor money. So you will end up backtracking and combing every inch of greenery to find a glimmer of shine poking out from behind a bush.
But the pièce de résistance of this lovely title is how the storytelling, gameplay and soundtrack become one. Miku and Taku speak little and a fictional language, but much of the emotion is expressed through small looks and gestures. Hauntingly beautiful pianos and strings punctuate these moments and exploration segments wonderfully. But Uppercut doesn't stop there as moments of reactive animation and soundtrack come into play.
Thanks to her ability, when Miku passes a husk—a remnant of a human before the world's cataclysm—it slowly animates and a piece of music begins to lightly play. This is further enhanced when Miku is holding a seed. Flowers spring forth around her, the husks' music has more layers or a different tone. And as she moves closer to the nest, light chimes begin to rise and swell to a beautifully satisfying zenith. A culmination of small touches creates something quite wonderful.
Submerged: Hidden Depths is exactly the kind of experience needed when you're craving a taste of pure, relaxing escapism. It knows what it is and does it exceptionally well. Lovers of exploration and gradual environmental storytelling will easily find a new favourite to fill a few hours. If you go into it expecting something more action-packed, not only will you inevitably court disappointment, you'll be doing both yourself and the game a grave disservice. Clear your mind, get in the boat and lose yourself in a delightfully serene adventure.
Submerged: Hidden Depths is out now on PC, Playstation 5, Playstation 4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One and Google Stadia.