If first impressions count for anything, Close to the Sun sticks the landing. Mixed metaphors aside, Close to the Sun immediately impresses with its photo realistic Art Deco/Steampunk aesthetic that suggests an action-free version of BioShock. Close to the Sun is a very pretty puzzle and exploration game, a guns-free walking simulator with a little more horror and incident than some other games in the genre.
The title, of course, is a reference to Greek mythology and the story of Icarus, and the game’s chapter titles further reinforce the thematic connection. You play as investigative reporter Rose, who has come aboard the massive city-ship Helios in search of your sister, Ada. Not unlike BioShock’s undersea utopia Rapture, the Helios is the brain child of another maniacal genius, in this case Nicolas Tesla. He has populated his sea-going city with the biggest brain trust of the age, not to mention bringing to fruition every invention his fevered brain could imagine. But — surprise! — something has gone awry in the paradise and you are there to figure out what happened and rescue your sibling.
Exploring the incredibly detailed Helios is at the heart of Close to the Sun. Finding and reading scraps of journals, news clippings and other environmental detritus and piecing together the mystery is the core of the experience, enriched by generally credible voice acting. A little like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, the energetic fields of past people and events populate the ship and these ghostly apparitions help guide Rose through the Helios and point her to puzzles and their solutions.
Close to the Sun flirts with horror, jump scares and a good deal of implied violence and tragedy along with its theme of scientific hubris gone bad. There is a palpable sense of gloom and doom in nearly every space, and telling grisly details abound.
The game is a puzzle heavy as well, and unfortunately this is where some of the fun goes away. None of the puzzles are incredibly complex but many are focused on very careful observation, memorization or timed sequences, and missing a clue or event timing can mean a lot of repetitive wandering through already explored spaces or repeated attempts at navigating a maze-like escape. Eventually, boredom and/or frustration replace the carefully curated sense of dread and mystery that the game is trying to build.
It would hard to over-praise Close to the Sun’s environmental art design and convincing level of detail and polish, aided and abetted by moody lighting and excellent, dread-inducing sound design. Far less convincing are the game’s relatively infrequent character models, whether moving or as inanimate corpses. The vague, energy-field figures are more successful.
Although it conflates and confuses a lot of historical reality to conform to its alternative universe, Close to the Sun really impresses in a few key areas. It looks incredible and is founded on a solid story concept. Some of its puzzles, mechanics and pacing issues get it in the way and remind the player that moving through the world needs to be just as satisfying as looking at the world. Fans of “walking simulators” and BioShock will feel at home but Close to the Sun does a good job of creating its own identity despite the obvious influences.