The combination of exploration, Tomb Raider-esque adventure and traversal, and a sunken world that finds beauty in the post-apocalypse, without any of the combat or sense of danger that often accompanies such games, is a recipe for a game both intriguing and relaxing. Uppercut Games proved the merits of this “relaxploration” concept with Submerged in 2015, hitting a sweet spot for calm, reflective exploration that resisted the modern-day urge to fill a game with stuff just for the sake of it. Seven years and a few other games later, the Australian studio is back with Submerged: Hidden Depths.
Based on the hour or so I’ve seen of it so far, Hidden Depths is more of what made the first game so memorable. It’s a more ambitious game, with a few more ingredients thrown into the mix, but it’s heart remains the same: explore the sunken ruins of a modern-day city with a dinky little boat, disembark at various landmarks to climb, jump, and puzzle your way through, and try to piece together the city’s mysteries in the process. That loop is every bit as satisfying as it was in the original.
The most noticeable change, right out the gate, is that Hidden Depths’ puzzles are more… well, puzzling. The first game was somewhat straightforward in its level design, with little in the way of obstacles for players to overcome—a point criticised by some, though it was in keeping with the overall tone. By contrast, Hidden Depths has more environmental puzzles thrown in, with switches, one-way routes, and obstacles that need to be cleared before you can get through. I don’t necessarily agree with that criticism of Submerged, but Hidden Depths seems to strike a nice balance: there’s nothing too mentally taxing in what I’ve seen, and these puzzles stay true to the no-pressure atmosphere of the game, but help to make the land-based exploration feel a bit more involved.
That sense flows into the rest of the game to, with a lot more (and more varied) collectibles to find: sunken relics, flowers to decorate your based with, landmarks, animals, diary entries, and so on. I will admit I’m a little concerned that the later parts could suffer from open world-itis if there’s too much collectible clutter, to the detriment of theme and mood, but in what I’ve seen so far, the balance is about right. They encourage exploration and help flesh out Submerged’s curious world, but without feeling shoehorned in or overplayed—here’s hoping that keeps up. The world itself is more vibrant and detailed, which certainly helps, too.
But the most intriguing thing about it is its story. Following on from the first game, Miku (no, not the vocaloid) and Taku find themselves in a new city, overrun by some sort of pollution called Mass. Miku, meanwhile, finds herself with a mutated arm that seems to respond to the Mass, making her uniquely able to clear it away—and raising further questions about what’s going on. Like Submerged, Hidden Depths unfolds primarily through pictorial diary entries and storytelling through set design, and holds fast to the first game’s environmental message.
There are a lot of questions for Submerged: Hidden Depths to answer, but from what I’ve seen so far, it’s exactly what you’d hope for from a sequel to one of last generation’s hidden gems. There’s more to see and do this time around, with puzzles that are a bit more involved, but without letting “bigger and better and more!” get in the way of what made Submerged what it is: the atmosphere and relaxed vibe that make its world one to get lost in, with a heartfelt and pointed story to uncover along the way.