Prior to the release of Italian indie studio Storm in a Teacup’s new first-person exploration horror Close to the Sun, the developers were quick to point out that the game was not BioShock with Nikola Tesla in the role of megalomaniac Andrew Ryan. Firstly, there are no weapons to be found, nor what one might consider traditional first-person shooter combat mechanics.
That said, the on-the-water location of massive automated vessel Helios with its huge opulent art-deco design and varying sections that all add up to a singular Nikola Tesla powered society is very BioShock-y. And truth be told, one of the main reasons we were drawn to it in the first place. It nails the look. That, and we can’t get enough of seeing some of Tesla’s more outlandish designs brought to life.
So then, the best way to describe Close to the Sun would be as a first-person narrative, where exploration across various chapters is broken up by moments of tension and regular ‘run from something to reach safety’ moments. Set during the closing moments of the 19th century, players take on the role journalist Rose Archer as she boards the Helios in search of her sister and talented scientist Ada. Aboard the large hulking vessel with its polished and shiny metallic fixtures she gets to see first-hand an almost religious monument to the successes of Nikola Tesla.
An autonomous society that creates vast amounts of electricity and is free from government oversight thanks to creations like Tesla’s Death Ray. Which, naming aside, forcefully brokers peace between neighbouring nations via the threat of pre-nuclear age instantaneous annihilation. All of this is gleaned from one of the earliest locations visited being a Tesla museum.
Billed as a horror experience, and it’s not long before you’re presented with floors and walls covered in blood and reading notes talking about a disastrous event, Close to the Sun is as much an alternate universe sci-fi that deals with time travel and other heady concepts. One wrapped up in a character driven tale that focuses on fleshing out not only the protagonist but also the other humans you stumble across. Tesla included.
This character focus is in direct contrast to the wonder and spectacle of the Helios and the mystery surrounding its current ‘Ghost Ship’ status. As a non-scientist, stepping into the shoes of Rose allows the scope of labs, contraptions, experiments, and all the weirdness to feel almost supernatural. And this in turn amplifies the horror. As a narrative experience first and foremost, presented in a linear fashion, to delve too deep into the story would take away a decent chunk of its power. Close to the Sun doesn’t really offer any sort of longevity or replayability outside of each chapter containing a small list of collectibles – which isn’t a bad thing per se. And at around four to five hours, it’s a moderately lengthy tale that will keep your attention and curiosity throughout.
Where it falters a bit though is when it regularly dips into the aforementioned ‘run away’ or chase sequences, where you have run through a precisely scripted path in order to reach safety. In the latter stages this evolves into a fun section that has you running between safe spots to avoid periodic energy surge blasts, but for the most part each of the chase bits only really works cinematically. Where not being able to turn around or see the threat adds to the tension.
For the most part though, playing Close to the Sun has you become a tourist of sorts in the fantastically realised setting of the Helios. At the worst possible time. From visiting a museum dedicated to the works of Nicola Tesla to seeing residential quarters, lavish ballrooms, theatres, and the huge mechanical wonders that keep it all afloat – it’s a visual treat for fans of the era and early pioneer spirit found in several famous inventors. As a blend of intrigue, mystery, sci-fi, and horror – Close to the Sun may not be the turn of the century BioShock that pre-release media might have suggested, but there’s plenty of electricity and power to be found in the story it tells.