It’s perhaps almost parody at this point for eager Switch fans to tweet their longing desire for a game to be released on the system. "Is it coming to Switch?" remains a near-constant reminder to the social media marketing teams that there’s an entire console fanbase that wants their shiny new game replicated on a system that doesn’t necessarily have the power under the hood to do it justice.
Close to the Sun from developer Storm in a Teacup is one of those games. While there were seemingly always plans in place to bring the game to consoles (it's launching on PS4 and Xbox One at the same time as Switch), there’s no getting around the fact that upon booting up the game on a handheld device, it's obvious that some enormous technical corners have been cut to make it happen – actually, it's less 'cut' and more 'slashed to pieces', if we're honest.
Still, what remains firmly intact is the very thing that Close to the Sun is so famous for – the slow-moving, unsettling atmosphere that surrounds you at every turn. You play as journalist Rose Archer, who, after receiving a letter from sister Ada, boards the almighty Helios, an enormous cruise ship/laboratory designed by none other than real-world boffin Nikola Tesla himself. It’s a fascinating insight into just what the world could have looked like through his inventions; Tesla’s dream was one of limitless, free energy and immeasurable scientific breakthroughs that would benefit the future of the human race.
The Helios experiment goes rather wrong, as you might suspect. The plan was to give the world dominion over time itself but instead, a hellish nightmare is all that awaits the unfortunate passengers aboard this once proud ship sailing into a certain prosperous future. We encounter the Helios some time after the disaster, viewing the action through the eyes of Rose, who is on the hunt for Ada – a passenger from the very beginning.
The story very much begins and ends there, with a premise that promises far more than it ever delivers. It’s easy to make obvious comparisons to BioShock and you’d be right in thinking that they share a similar tone. The difference is Close to the Sun doesn’t expand on its world and narrative anywhere near as interestingly as BioShock does. The premise and the setup – featuring twists that are all too easy to figure out way in advance if you pay attention – tries hard to be something it isn’t, and as such foregoes an opportunity to offer a fresh perspective on the concept of Utopia.
But that promise lends itself well to the devastation that surrounds you throughout your playthrough. The aforementioned atmosphere is the game's biggest strength, with Rose moving at a pace not too dissimilar to the protagonists of Firewatch or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, though you are able to move at a faster pace, should you need to. Rose has no idea what’s happened on the Helios and as the story unravels the tension creeps all the way up. You can't fault Close to the Sun when it comes to establishing tone and tension.
Things get very bleak very quickly, and as you uncover dead bodies – some mutilated in gruesome ways – you begin to fear what could be lurking around the corner, and what has happened to your beloved sister. There are jumpscares aplenty throughout, but they don’t feel earned. Survivors will run around in front of your eyesight with an orchestral hit accompanying. At first, it’s certainly unsettling, though eventually, you’ll grow tired of the game's attempts to scare you with people appearing seemingly from nowhere. The tension and the music do a perfect job of keeping Rose – and, by extension, you – on edge, so anything else feels a little tacked on.
As Close to the Sun takes its cues from famous walking-simulators, you don’t have a weapon or any real form of navigation. Should you find yourself in a ‘chase sequence’, all you can do is run down corridors and flip a switch in order to survive. You can be caught and you can die, but unless you choose not to flee, you'll have little trouble outrunning your pursuers. Because these sequences are so easy to overcome, they quickly begin to feel tiresome; it's like they've been included to pad things out more than anything else.
Littered throughout the Helios are various puzzles you’re tasked with solving in order to move through locations, primarily to open locked doors or activate lifts. These rarely amount to anything more taxing than ‘find a piece of paper with the code on and input the code’. Early on, you’ll walk into the first of several flashback sequences, showcasing Helios before the downfall: a room full of wealthy individuals wearing steampunk masks sharing drinks and talking of Tesla’s visionary ideas. What follows is something you’d think would tie into that moment – finding a way out of the room and into the lift. There’s a code combination you’ll need to input into a panel, but naturally, you’re not in possession of the necessary numbers.
After a fair bit of exploration across this sizable room, it turns out the code is on a table directly opposite the door panel on a piece of paper left behind by the staff. This being a ‘figure-it-out-on-your-own’ type of game, it stung how much time was wasted walking around looking for any sign of the code's cryptic location. Having learned that early lesson, future searches became somewhat easier for us.
Throughout the game, you have Ada in your ear guiding you to her location, working as little more than an exposition machine while you’re left to figure out the puzzles and where it is you need to be heading. She’s a calming, if not overly helpful presence, and will only perk up as and when it’s necessary. It certainly would have been beneficial to delve a little deeper into their relationship, being sisters. Throughout the dialogue, the moments you feel their sibling connection are the most fleeting, and instead, Ada becomes a device rather than a fleshed-out character. Given that your ultimate quest – and the reason you're risking your life on this accursed ship – is to save her, this robs the game of impetus and impact. Without a convincing human bond, Close to the Sun loses steam rapidly.
One of Close to the Sun’s strongest assets from its original release on PC was the artistic direction fully immersed you in the world of Nikola Tesla’s inventions, and thankfully that still (just about) shines through on Switch. The design of the Helios can’t be faulted, and though it takes clear inspiration from BioShock’s themetically-similar underwater city of Rapture, there are plenty of areas that are full of tiny details that pay homage to Tesla – including a sly dig at Thomas Edison, which can't fail to raise a smile.
It’s unfortunate that the resolution hit the Switch version has taken means you need to be up close in order to truly appreciate those little aspects of detail. When played on the TV with you sitting a fair distance from the screen, these beautiful hallways and apartments are scuppered by jerky lines and dim colours. While nobody would be foolish to think that the Switch is the ideal platform to experience such a visually bold game, it feels like the developers have bitten off much more than they can chew by trying to get their grand vision working on Nintendo's hybrid system.
Taking clear inspiration from the seminal BioShock series, Close to the Sun promises much but delivers a somewhat lacklustre exploration of a world 'enhanced' by Nikola Tesla’s fascinating vision. The horror is ramped up with a tense and unsettling atmosphere, but cheap and repetitive jump scares lower the tone and the rudimentary puzzle sequences provide little in the way of real challenge. To make matters worse, the Switch is far from the ideal system to contain such a visually striking game; while the Helios remains a sight to behold, there’s little here to warrant jumping aboard.