Close to the Sun has plenty of rough patches, but its interesting world and charming main characters help it keep its metaphorical wings attached.
When choosing a name like Close to the Sun, developer Storm in a Teacup was practically asking for any number snappy review quotes about having a little too much ambition. While it definitely has some significant flaws, Close to the Sun mostly avoids the Icarus comparisons its title invites. Its four-or-so-hour story provides a decent, bite-sized horror experience. At times, it feels like a somewhat shallow exploration of a potentially fascinating setting, but what glimpses it does provide into this unique world and its characters are some of Close to the Sun’s best moments.
Atmosphere, then, is Close to the Sun’s strongest feature. Each of its 10 chapters take protagonist Rose to a different section of the Helios, a massive vessel floating in the middle of the ocean. Despite taking place entirely on one ship, each area has a unique look that keeps things feeling fresh. One minute, you’re stepping into an elevator in the ship’s inflamed Physics Department, and the next, you’re emerging into the lavish, gilded lobby of a giant theater. Close to the Sun’s environmental design continually impresses, and this does wonders for establishing mood during the spooky sections and the downtime in between.
Close to the Sun’s characters similarly help keep the game’s pace and mood, but they’re less consistently great across the board. Rose is a mostly well-written, relatable protagonist, but Aubrey, a scientist who speaks with Rose remotely throughout most of the story, is the stand-out personality. His ever-present radio chatter provides a Firewatch-like companion for Rose, with excellent voice acting and writing that add both levity and tension to the experience. Rose’s sister, Ada, and Nikola Tesla (yes, that Nikola Tesla) are more one-note, making it a little hard to care about them outside of their relationships to Rose and Aubrey. The most disappointing character, though, is Ludwig, a knife-wielding, murderous madman. While he provides the best horror sequences in the entire game, by far, his motivations aren’t really explained. He blames Rose for the things happening aboard the Helios, but you never really find out why. Instead, he’s essentially just a crazy dude who wanders around, killing people and repeating a vague mantra about “breaking the circle.”
Sadly, the imperfectness of Close to the Sun’s supporting cast carries over into its main story. The game takes place in an alternate 1800’s, where Tesla’s inventions have propelled humanity into a “second age of scientific enlightenment.” Of course, Tesla’s experiments go terribly wrong, the laws of the universe get mixed up, and people start dying. More lightning-punk than steampunk, this setting provides some intriguing plot points (particularly the killer creatures that the game describes as antibodies for a wound in time), but there’s a lot of “you wouldn’t understand” and “I don’t have time to explain.” Odd, interesting occurrences take place, leaving you wondering how they happened, but you’re left to shrug off many of them as some kind of time-bending physics anomaly. It’s possible that some of it is explained in one of the game’s lore-filled collectible items - of which there are many - but most of these seemed to be everyday objects (letters, inspection notes, a diploma, etc.) meant to add realism to the Helios
In spite of all this vagueness, Close to the Sun’s major plot twist is telegraphed so obviously that it’s not really a surprise. This actually works to the game’s advantage until it happens, providing constant tension since you know you could be walking into a bad situation at any moment. But once it occurs, there’s not much intrigue left to carry the plot to its end. Things just sort of happen and keep happening, and then it’s over. Still, only about an hour of the game falls within this sub-par bit of the story. The payoff might not hold up, but the majority of the experience is interesting enough.
Close to the Sun has problems outside of its story, too. There are one or two too many “thing slamming into the window” jump scares, sometimes for seemingly no reason. Character animations are stiff, which can sometimes kill the tension. At one point, I saw two monsters perform the exact same animation, in-time with each other. After that - and after seeing the seams in their skin textures up-close - it was hard to feel scared of them. Certain sections of the game had quite a bit of slowdown on a base PS4 model - though Storm in a Teacup said further performance optimization wasn’t included in the review build - particularly in chapter eight, where things stuttered significantly. The camera is also a bit wonky, stuttering a little as it turns and showing a little too much head bobbing while walking, which could make it nauseating for some players. Additionally, while the game’s generous checkpoint system was usually appreciated, there was one point where I was killed while trying to avoid a giant electrical explosion, respawned in a location I hadn’t been too, and killed again immediately after respawning. This continued to happen, making it frustratingly difficult to find the right path forward.
All of these flaws are enough to make Close to the Sun feel like a game with a lot of potential that doesn’t quite stick the landing. Still, it’s clear that a lot of love and care went into creating the game’s beautiful environments and main characters, and there are a few really great scares, such as a particularly terrifying and unexpected chase through a spooky maze. These things carry Close to the Sun through its rough patches, making it a worthwhile experience, despite its flaws, if the setting sounds at all interesting to you.
Close to the Sun is releases on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch on October 29, 2019, and is also available on PC. A PS4 code was provided to Screen Rant by Storm in a Teacup for review.