A trend I’ve noticed floating around TikTok, Instagram and other social media, particularly since early 2020, is ‘cosy games’. There seems to be a collective, insatiable appetite for relaxing, low-pressure games that players can use to escape from reality. Submerged: Hidden Depths, from Australian independent studio Uppercut Games, is one such game.
Cosy games feature cute and colourful art styles, item collecting, low-stakes exploration, freedom of choice and engaging characters or stories. It’s not just one single aesthetic or genre; it’s about how a game feels.
Submerged: Hidden Depths is a self-dubbed ‘relaxploration’ adventure. After being released exclusively for the Google Stadia in 2020, it finally has a full release for consoles and PC. It’s the sequel to the 2015 adventure Submerged, though you don’t need any prior knowledge going into this one.
It’s a combat-free, open world adventure game about an orphaned brother and sister, Taku and Miku, who are on a quest to find a new home. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic sunken city where the pernicious roots of the Black Plant have sprung forth from the earth and destroyed everything in their wake. Miku has been cursed, but the curse grants her a unique power: she can heal the roots. Using your boat, Hidden Depths asks you to explore the game’s unique map and restore the balance of nature.
Submerged: Hidden Depths is immediately striking. The colour palette is vibrant, setting a light-hearted tone despite the somewhat eerie post-apocalyptic environment. There’s an intriguing juxtaposition between the primal characters and locations, decorated with leaves, vines and wood, and the crumbling ruins of modern buildings littered with broken household electrical appliances, all created in beautiful detail. Even its simple elements are crafted in such a way that it’s a pleasure just to look around.
Water – a key feature and almost a character in itself – is especially stunning. The ocean shifts with the dynamic weather effects, rippling calmly one moment, then turning rough and choppy when a storm rolls in. Its subtle hues of blue change with the day-night cycle. The midday sun renders the water a bright cyan. At night it turns to a deep sapphire blue as it reflects the night sky. The built-in postcard (photo) mode got plenty of use from me as I marvelled at these visual delights.
Your core focus in Submerged: Hidden Depths is to explore the map in search of nine seeds. Your home base, called The Dome, is at the centre of the map, with the seed locations branching out from it like spokes on a wheel. Other points of interest and collectables can be found scattered around, and the open world exploration involved in finding the seed locations, and the plethora of collectable items, is the stand-out feature of the game.
You can use your telescope to scout ahead and add locations to your map, or you can take to the open seas and discover them organically. There’s no specific order in which you need to explore, so you have complete freedom in how you approach your objectives.
There’s satisfaction to be found from ticking off the items like on a to-do list, and there’s plenty here to keep you busy. There are over a hundred collectables including lore books, relics, outfit and hair styles, boat upgrades and native flowers which can all be used or displayed at The Dome once you find them.
The location of each seed is a large, abandoned structure ravaged by time – a hotel, a cathedral, a power plant – that you need to navigate your way through. You start at sea level and work your way to the peak to find the seed and plant it within the Black Plant to heal that section of the map. Some simple but effective puzzle solving is involved here. The vertical nature of the structures means you need to climb up, while also finding ways to move the seed with you. That means lots of ledges, ladders and ropes, with a combination of levers, pressure pads and pulleys for the seed.
In keeping with the intent for ‘relaxploration’, the level design in these sections is fairly straightforward. It’s not completely devoid of challenge, but Uppercut have mapped everything out clearly, so it’s unlikely that you will find yourself stuck without any indication of where to go. Climbing spots are often marked with red paint and collectables glisten to catch your eye. Nothing is ever hidden too far out of plain sight, and you can rely on the sound design to guide you, since the music swells when you’re heading in the right direction.
You’re automatically transported back to The Dome upon completion of these tasks, which means you thankfully don’t need to retrace your steps. But Submerged: Hidden Depths can fall into a rhythm of rinse-and-repeat if you don’t take the time to slow down and hunt for collectables out in the open world.
Where Submerged: Hidden Depths falters a little is in its storytelling. There’s a heavy reliance on the written book entries you find around the map that communicate lore, and the story of how the world came to be as it is – finding all fifty-six entries will give you a full understand of the story. This all equates to a whole lot of telling, and not a lot of showing.
The entries are a series of cave painting-style images with short captions written in the past tense, which makes them difficult to connect with. This aspect stands out because at times, it feels as if Submerged: Hidden Depths wants to elicit an emotional response in you. But the narrative feels too lacking for that – I didn’t feel anything for the characters. There’s an exciting twist in the late stages of the game, but by the time the story reached its conclusion, I felt like I had missed the point somewhere along the way.
Still, Submerged: Hidden Depths succeeds in being a relaxing exploration game. With a gorgeous world, good puzzles, and an ample amount of collectables to uncover, it wouldn’t be surprising if it started appearing on those ‘top ten cosy games’ compilations on TikTok.
4 stars: ★★★★
Submerged: Hidden Depths
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC,
Developer: Uppercut Games
Publisher: Uppercut Games
Release Date: 10 March 2022
The PlayStation 4 version of Submerged: Hidden Depths was provided and played for the purposes of this review.