Diluvion Review

Diluvion is a perfect example of how a video game can get so much right, only to be almost wrecked by one or two critical flaws.  In Diluvion’s case, these flaws are baffling, because they could have easily been foreseen and fixed with some proper testing.  Instead, they weren’t, turning Diluvion into a huge missed opportunity – one that despite its beauty and atmosphere will probably leave you with mixed feelings when all is said and done.  It is an ambitious title that has a lot going for it, so it isn’t hard to recommend.   If you dive into it though, you should do it with the knowledge that it may stretch your tolerance for bad game design to the breaking point.

Diluvion takes place after a great cataclysm has doomed civilization to an undersea existence.  What remains of humanity now lives in the ocean, under a thick sheet of ice that covers the entire world.  You, as the newly minted captain of a submarine, take on the quest to find a great artifact that may restore mankind to its former glory.  During your journey, you visit various locales like magnificent natural formations, huge sunken wreckages, trading posts, and cities.  As you progress, you find all kinds of hidden treasures as you defend yourselves from a variety of dangerous foes.

If you boil Diluvion down to its basic elements, it plays a lot like a space sim, but underwater, where everything moves very slowly.  Like a space sim, you have two basic attacks.  The first is a basic, short range, low accuracy attack that shoots scrap metal at enemies.  The second is the torpedo, a guided underwater missile that locks onto enemies with devastating effect.   Although these mechanics may seem familiar, they will take some getting used to if you haven’t played a submarine game before.  In Diluvion, everything, both you and your enemies, moves slowly.  Your submarine has a lot of inertia, it turns slowly, and it generally isn’t capable of outrunning anyone.  You also have virtually no way of evading attacks if somebody has you dead-to-rights; if you get too close to an overpowering enemy it will destroy your ship before you can escape.  It feels very much like you are piloting an underwater behemoth in the game, which seems to be precisely what Diluvion is aiming for.  Fighting enemies can be a rough challenge, one that will likely end in your death until you have grasped the game's controls.  The game benefits from this sense of danger in the end, because it forces you to be cautious and smart about how you use your resources.  The combat works well and is appropriate for what the game is supposed to be, but this doesn’t always make it enjoyable.  There isn’t much of a variety in the tactics that you can use to defeat enemies – you usually just aim at an enemy and spam them as much as possible with rapid fire and torpedoes.  Or, if necessary, you keep your distance and just spam them with torpedoes while shooting the ones that they launch at you.  There is a terrific leviathan boss battle at the end of each act that provides a change of pace.  The combat in the game is otherwise fairly repetitive.

Combat isn’t the main attraction for Diluvion though.  Where this game really shines is with its brilliant art direction and gorgeous, exotic visuals.  The game boasts of being inspired by Jules Verne, and it hits that mark perfectly with its combination of steampunk design and alien scenery.  Despite the its post-apocalytpic premise, the game's world is a charming one.  It is a distant future world where 1930s submarine technology fits right in.   Attention to detail is impressive, like the little streams of bubbles that come from your ship when you change elevations.  Your ship looks particularly inspired, especially towards the end of the game when you have fully decked it out with upgrades.  What will probably blow you away though is the variety of bright, colorful environments that the world has for you to discover.  Diluvion is a gorgeous game with a huge world for you to explore – one that is delightfully free of copy-and-paste and full of one breath-taking vista after another.  Much of the game takes place deep underwater with no natural light, but there is plenty of glowing marine life and brightly lit machinery to make up for it in most spots.  The best example of this dynamic at work is the old sewer pipe system that you find about halfway through the game – a colorful network of tunnels with some jaw-dropping visuals.  It is because of the beautiful scenery that the game maintains its sense of exploration and adventure throughout its 20-hour run length.  How could anyone not want to be a submarine captain and explore this world?

The atmosphere in the game is aided by some terrific audio when it comes to both music and sound effects.  The music that plays while you are peacefully exploring is lovely, and the battle music is appropriately exciting (albeit repetitive as the combat itself).  The sound effects are a perfectly chosen blend of classic submarine noises like muffled underwater explosions, sonar pings, the “whoosh!” of the torpedoes as they are fired, and random creaks and groans.  Suffice it to say, the strength of Diluvion lies in its presentation.  

Unfortunately, Diluvion falters in some other areas, sometimes so profoundly that it is a wonder that the game made it out the door in this state.   Although the game has three huge open areas, its story progresses mostly in a linear fashion.  Most of the missions in this story involve travelling to a certain spot on the map and either collecting an item and/or killing an enemy or enemies.  This objectives are simple enough, but the game often fails to tell you where to go, frequently giving you infuriatingly vague and unhelpful tips and on what to do next.   Landmarks are placed on your map when you discover them, but the game has no quest markers.  For games with a small enough world this problem wouldn’t be a killer, but for Diluvion, it is disastrous.   Each map in the game is massive, not just on the x-y axes, but on the z-axis as well.  Just searching a large 2D area with a slow moving submarine has the potential to be tedious.  When you have no idea where to go and you have to search on three axes instead of two, it becomes a nightmare.   

The most obnoxious example of this problem comes in the game’s first major area, when the game instructs you to “Find the drill site”.  However, there is no drill site on your map.  You can ask one of your crew members if he knows where it is, and he tells you “yes”, but then the conversation ends and he doesn’t actually tell you where it is.  He doesn’t even point you in a general direction.  It is as if either the game is taunting you or an important piece of dialog was accidentally deleted from the game.  At this point in the game, after spending over an hour searching, I nearly quit before finally finding my objective.  Over the course of 20 or so hours, I went through that experience more than a few times.

To make matters worse, the game has a map, but it doesn’t actually mark your location on that map.  (Why doesn’t my submarine have a stupid navigator?).  Since you are underwater, it is very easy to get disoriented and lose sense of where you are or where you are supposed to be going – something that happens frequently when you get attacked or something else diverts you from your mission.  To make matters even worse, your crew slowly consumes oxygen while you are travelling, which means that you must find some way to replenish your air periodically.  Your exploration sessions are frequently cut short by the need to circle back to base so that your crew doesn’t suffocate to death, a round trip that may take you ten or more minutes.  Sometimes, you explore so far away from oxygen sources that you die and you have to revert back to your last checkpoint, which could have been 20 minutes ago.  The air supply mechanic makes perfect sense within the game and it adds a welcome element of survival and challenge.  However, it accentuates the major problems that the game has with its lack of directions and quest markers.  It is a shame that the game so frequently bogs down in these quagmires. 

The game’s tendency to bog down in long, boring searches is its biggest problem, but it has some other minor issues as well.  The game is very sloppy in some other areas, particularly its dialog and storytelling.  The game frequently references the world’s back story as if expecting you to know all of it, but it never actually lays out that back story in a codex or a dialog dump.   There appears to have been a rich world conceptualized for this game, but for some reason an explanation of that world is sorely missing from the game.  NPCs are mostly signposts who issue one or two lines of generic dialog, with the exception of important story NPCs who might have four or five lines of dialog that don’t always make sense.   There is barely any explanation given to you for why you need to fulfill each of your quests, and by the end of the game there is a good chance that you will have forgotten why you started off on your adventure in the first place.  The end comes kind of suddenly, with a final scene that might leave you scratching your head.  It feels as if a more ambitious story existed at one time, but chunks of it were cut out of it to make the game’s release date.

Diluvion also has some half-baked or poorly implemented features that, once again, smack of a limited budget or an abbreviated development cycle.  The loot, for instance, is quite dull and repetitive, which takes away some of the thrill of exploring to find hidden treasure.  Besides a few basic useful items, most of what you find is just junk to exchange for money.  Submarine management has some basic RPG elements, but they are too rudimentary to have much gameplay value.  The game boasts upgradeable submarines, but you have no options for customizing your upgrades.  You can only upgrade your sub twice, and, each time, all of the upgrades have been chosen for you.  These gameplay elements are still a net positive for the game, but more robust crew and management mechanics could have made the experience an addictive one.

Is Diluvion worth your time and your $20?  The answer to that question depends entirely upon your level of patience and whether this type of slow moving experience is what you are looking for.  When the game is at its best, it provides exactly what a video game about a submarine should provide -- that childlike sense of wonder and adventure that can only come from a new discovery or a narrow escape from a tough battle.  It is just a shame that the game is hampered by some major flaws that shouldn't have been terribly difficult to avoid.  If you can stick with the game, it rewards you suitably.  When the credits rolled, I was left smiling, with a positive impression of the game, but that was only five hours or so after I decided to quit the game and never pick it back up again.