Open question: What’s your dream superpower? For me, it’s being able to breathe under water. I don’t mean that in the sense of really wanting that power over any others, or even thinking it’s particularly cool; I just have semi-regular dreams about being able to breathe underwater like it’s no big thing. Maybe it’s because I’m Dutch, and as such used to living ‘under water’; maybe it has to do with my agoraphobia; maybe I just like the idea of living in weird desolate places. Maybe I’m just tired of dry heat, who knows.
It’s probably no coincidence that I have a particular fondness for games that are set underwater in some way. I have never once minded water levels, including that one Zelda temple everyone always brings up, and that one World of Warcraft zone where you ride seahorses — it rules, fight me. I reviewed Abzû, I spent eleven hours on Aquaria, I built more underwater dwellings in Anno 2070 than I care to remember — before the update that made that a viable strategy! — and resisting the pull to disappear into Subnautica forever is a daily struggle.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low with one exception, I guess. Mechanical, high-ish, but you’ll thank me for it..)
(Game source: Bought it myself.)
Diluvion starts off… interesting. Enigmatic background music, a rotating cipher wheel, the constant aesthetic of being under water. What I asked for, I suppose. I’m not entirely sure how to make heads or tails of it. The starkly immersion-breaking Settings menu doesn’t help, drawing (if anything) even more attention to the strange, cobbled-together feeling of the opening experience.
But in times of weird uncertainty, what else is there to do but power ahead? I start a new game, rename the default Swashbuckler to a more personalized Jarenth, and for my efforts I’m treated to an even more enigmatic introduction, text over panning images talking about a world that was.
There’s no voice-over, so I strain a little bit to read the light blue text on the predominantly light-coloured background, but I think things go a little like this: Once, there was dry land. There was a human civilization on that dry land and it was a technological utopia, very quickly confirming that Diluvion takes place in some sort of alternate reality.
The storyteller describes how ‘the Gods sent down the Calamity’, while the art displays something much more akin to nuclear holocaust. Either way, what happened is that everything sank. But then one nice God ‘hid a gift in the Endless Corridor, the deepest, darkest part of the ocean’. Legend goes that whoever finds it will ‘usher in a new Golden Age for mankind’.
Anyway, time to pick a sub!
One cipher wheel scene transition later, I find myself looking at murk. Wow, the underwater is… green, and filthy, absolutely packed with floating gunk. I wouldn’t at all love breathing this. Some dreams should stay dreams forever, I suppose.
I try some controls. Right stick controls the camera, unsurprisingly. Left stick rotates my sub around, and also makes it float up and down. Clicking the right analogue stick makes a radial compass appear and disappear, which I discover because I tied my screenshots to stick-clicking — so expect to see a lot of that later on. No forward movement makes itself known.
Then, a tutorial prompt appears!
I click the right bumper (RB) and my sub speed is increased by one category. Slowly, my sub starts moving forward, as a grumpy-looking head in the lower right corner acknowledges the change. In the lower left, I can see that fifty-seven orange piles of scrap metal also feature, somehow.
I slowly move through a strange corridor of rocks, plants, and blue ice. For half a minute or so, nothing happens apart from that: It’s just me, my thoughts, and the sound of rushing water. Then the grumpy head appears in the corner again, accompanied by a Y button. When I press it, I’m suddenly and immediately zoomed into a cartoon sub.
I briefly speak with my helm officer, Jay Treadwasser, whose name is pseudo-German for ‘treading water’. We’ve apparently been looking for salvage all day, with no luck. “Let’s stop at that bar and regroup over some hard grog.”
What? Regroup at what bar? We’re god knows how many leagues below the sea, which itself is apparently covered in thick sheets of ice. Where in the seven eternal oceans are we going to find a ba–
A stream of golden fish appear around our sub. They point to something in the distance, which — as I draw closer — is more and more obviously some sort of structure, anchored to the rock walls by half a dozen chains.
As I get close to the structure, a small white anchor icon appears. I get closer still and it turns green, starts wiggling, and displays the text ‘press X to dock’. Which I do. Ropes shoot out, bubbles float up, my game is saved by glowing green fish, and suddenly I’m eyeing a side view of a… sigh. A ‘dive bar’.
I click on the little cut-out people, most of which are cycling through two or three frames of animation. Most of them just grunt and do nothing, but Jay (who’s also there) is outlined in red, and has a text bubble over his head when I mouse over him. When I click on him, a small text conversation unfolds: We need to expand the crew and get a better sub, and hey wouldn’t you know there’s a super engineer who can make better subs in an Engineering Guild in Tonnesburg, a few fathoms away. Convenient. Jay reminds me that we can currently only dive to 200 meters, beyond which we will be utterly crushed by the water pressure.
Before we go anywhere, though, Jay reminds me to expand the crew. Luckily, there’s one eligible crewman on this very station! His name is Jack, he has a cool portrait that in no way matches his character model, and he’s willing to come on-board for the low low price of five dollars.
I back out of the Dive Bar screen, and into a side view of my sub. It’s made up of four circular rooms, two of which are currently occupied: A large crew quarters section, where Jack is taking a nap, and a smaller helm station, where Jay is standing at attention. I can talk to them both, and I can assign Jack to the helm station — this causes him to disappear into the aether, but provides a ten percent bonus to movement speed and ‘overdrive recharge’ — or leave him free to repair the sub whenever needed.
I can also check out the sub’s cargo: Right now we’re carrying an air tank, a cannon, some scrap metal, and fifteen buckets of food.
I back out once more and get back to sailing — well, subbing. Whatever you want to call it. Forward momentum through deep water. There’s still only one way to go, so I take it, and before long I reach Lynfjord. This means nothing to me, but I hope it does to other people — specifically, I hope there are other people in Lynfjord, because my aforementioned air tank is starting to drain.
We dive forward, and downward, quickly passing the -100 meters mark. There are small angry mines here, which I dodge. There’s a merchant ship that I can dock at, refilling all my air in return for… er, nothing, I guess. They do buy and sell stuff, but they have nothing that I want — that I can afford right now.
Finally, there’s a jail down here, in the middle of nowhere, under the sea. Which is actually strangely appropriate, the only really strange part is why it’s so close to a bar. I dock at the jail, and…
One series of hijinks later, I’m off with a new gunnery officer on-board and a jail ship in tow. I could choose to flee, but instead use this opportunity to learn about combat. Now that Kat is on-board and manning the previously empty gunnery space, I can use the right trigger (RT) to fire bolts of scrap metal into the blue unknown. And hopefully into my enemies.
This is… harder than it looks, initially. It turns out physics are in play: Both me and the other sub are moving, meaning I have to keep track of the lateral movement I impart on my projectile and try to lead my shot. My initial shots sail fairly wide of the target before dissipating into nothing. But then I learn the trick: There’s no need to aim good if you just get really close to your target, and sail at them head-on.
Downside: The gate to Tonnesburg closes while I fight, for reasons that might be security related or might be a rockslide — I didn’t quite catch it in the chaos and murk. Upside: There’s an open tunnel I can still take. Downside again: That tunnel is just below my crush depth, meaning I’ll have to be very fast and very careful…
…and definitely not accidentally get turned around while trying to navigate confusing tunnels, putting me right back at the jail I originally started out from.
It’s touch and go, but I manage to squeak through the tunnel with a minimum of damage from exceeding the crush depth.
And just like that, we’re in Tonnesburg, which the handy map I find in a container just outside the tunnel calls ‘Tonnesfjord’.
Alright, let’s take stock as we end the blow-by-blow here. I’m currently in more open water than I’ve been before. I may or may not be a fugitive from the law, if there is such a thing as centralized law in this undersea wasteland. All I have to my name is some food, some scrap metal, some cash, and a personal submarine, as well as four people willing to work on that sub — the man I saved from the crushing tunnel just so happens to be a trained Sonar Officer. This entire outfit will get me surprisingly nowhere. I do also have one lead: The name of John Hassley, famous engineer, who’s rumored to be able to upgrade my sub such that it can withstand up to 1000 meters of water pressure. I’ve already forgotten why that was relevant. Something about retrieving the bounty of the gods from the deep dark ocean floor?
Check back in with you after I’ve had cool undersea adventures!