Indie Wonderland: Diluvion

A few hours in

Hmm. Okay, well. That was, er… I normally open these second pages by doing some fun tie-in to the line I ended the first page on. But I don’t really have any? I don’t think I had anything that could be classified as ‘cool adventures’, unless you count the time I was nearly crushed to death by falling super ice.

Dramatic non-reconstruction.

I’ve written before about how it’s easy to review ‘good’ games. You just list the highlights and explain why they work to reach certain design goals, and presto, review. It’s similarly easy to review ‘bad’ games, with the added bonus of working off the frustration of playing them in review form. It’s mediocre games that are challenging to review, games that are a mixed bag of experiences, where you have to disentangle every single like and dislike and hold them up against the lens of your own biases and other players’ potential experience.

Diluvion belongs to a heretofore-theoretical fourth category. Diluvion is challenging to review because design-wise it’s in conflict with itself. I don’t know how to compare Diluvion‘s many design decisions to its greater intended experience because I can’t figure out what that greater intended experience is. And neither, I think, can Diluvion.

Does it want to be a single-player MMO? This one screenshot taken out of context suggests: Maybe.

Lemme see if I can explain this with examples.

Looking strictly at amount of play time by volume — i.e. ‘what you end up doing most’ — Diluvion is intended to be a game about third-person piloting a small submarine through dark, murky, uncertain waters. It aims to blend aspects of desperate survival with uncertainty and genuine exploration. The first time you find a larger area map, it’ll tell you: The map has area names on it, and you can find certain Landmarks that will be marked on there, but your own position will not be. Since those landmarks also appear on your ship-HUD compass, you’re intended to navigate using your wits and what you can see.

See, it tells you right in the beginning.

And this is what that compass thing looks like.

Looking at the interplay between travel, resource scarcity, and the way the world comports itself, the comparison I keep coming back to is Mount and Blade. Here is a large-feeling, somewhat-open world populated by a dozen towns of a handful factions, and many more NPCs — some narrative, some procedurally generated — that travel up and down and live their lives. As an independent agent, you move around the world, looting resources where you can find them to trade for food, air, and ammunition. Travel to distant landmarks to sell the information to cartographers’ guilds, or take on bounties to hunt pirates. You gather a crew of sailors around yourself to increasingly become stronger, and at some point you might even decide to strike out on your own — no longer content with taking on the game’s missions, you can always attack traders and NPC guards for ‘fun’ and ‘profit’.

I decided to bust open this sub three times my size just to see if I could.

This sounds like a fun and coherent game design. It’s too bad Diluvion isn’t actually that game. For one, the whole map thing is a… baffling lie, since the mapping system as it currently stands absolutely shows your actual location at any time.

I used this screenshot on the previous page, so it’s possible you were already scratching your head on this point.

The golden fish direction system similarly kicks the legs out from under this idea. The game doesn’t always give you straight directions… only every time you get close to a Landmark, or any other source of golden fish, at which point it’ll hold your hand for the next several minutes. Which, let me be clear here: I super appreciate a way to actually find what I need in this literal ocean of dark blues and greens. I wouldn’t have gotten half as far as I did without it. But it does mean Diluvion is, for the majority of its running time, not a game about uncertain exploration — it’s a game about following a moving line of glowing sea creatures to your next destination. Or a game about opening the minimap every ten seconds.

The living open world is a similar facade. I would have adored it if it was real, but…

For reasons beyond my full understanding (I’m assuming technical constraints), Diluvion‘s designers have opted to cut the world map into three discrete loading zones. That’s not all that weird in and by itself, maybe they wanted to gate player exploration and storytelling. But Diluvion already has a perfect narrative justification for tiered player gating: The ‘crush depth’ mechanic, which ensures that players can literally not go down further than their current level of sub allows. As it stands, the three zones roughly correspond to the three tiers of sub: ‘up to 200m’, ‘up to 500m’, and ‘whatever’, with a handful of areas in the former two that exceed safe limits. Again, fine, but imagine the sort of level design that would have been possible if all three of those areas existed in the same continuous world space! Imagine the verticality, for one. Imagine the visceral feeling of power that would come from getting in a new sub and diving, diving, diving, all the way to new towns and areas that before this might as well’ve been the hoary mists of legend. Imagine seeing powerful traders retreat to a depth you can’t follow, or dangerous pirates surface from the black. Imagine the social dynamics you could ecologically show: This faction is wealthy and powerful enough to afford living near the ocean floor, while this faction practically lives with their backs to the ice. I just made up a saying that people in this world could have: “with your back to the ice“. That’s how evocative this idea is!

The effect of cutting the world in three is that each separate sub-world (har har) becomes relatively small. With the speeds most submarines can reach it still takes meaningful time to traverse, so the immediate illusion of space and size is maintained; I’m not saying the world feels small, at least, not at first. But all the same, each area only has a handful of landmarks, stations, and points of real interest. I’ve completed the first two areas, and in both cases there was a lot of ‘going back to the same hub to talk to the same people in the same place’.

Speaking of which: Apart from the aforementioned freedom to attack, there is no agency. Attacking different targets seemingly has no influence on any standing with any group, which makes some sense, since most areas have only one or two major groups to even consider. There’s no reputation, no repercussion, no change over time based on your actions. I think there might be different trade prices in different locations, but I’m honestly not sure. There are no choices either, no competing quests or branching outcomes or interesting decisions.

“Where can I find a Morse radio?” Well, in this particular place, maybe. Which is to say, definitely here and only ever here.

So Diluvion isn’t Mount and Blade, fair fair. Looking at the gameplay direction and the actions you’ll be undertaking, it seems like what it actually purports to be is a combination arcade submarine combat simulator and character-driven story about a rag-tag submarine crew.

Both elements shown here.

Most of Diluvion‘s directed gameplay revolves around the chain of missions that you’ll be taking, and most of those missions are variants of ‘go to a place and kill a thing’. Oh, it’ll hide it: You’ll get missions like ‘go to a place and find the hidden passport’ or ‘go to a place and report back on what you find’. But if you expect the outcome of most of those things to not be lethal combat, you’ll be sorely mistaken. Between missions, and even during missions, the action is contextualized by character vignettes, generally centered on your ship officers. Especially on Jay, with Kat as a supporting character / reason to deliver exposition, since she’s apparently never been anywhere before.

Of these, the combat is… I’ll be honest, the combat is honestly generally okay. It’s strange, and crowded, and chaotic, and I never really felt like I had total control over what happened. You have a limited action space, consisting of: Moving around, pinging enemies on sonar, manually firing cannons, and locking and firing seeking torpedoes. And since most enemies share that same action space, there’s a sense of strange fairness — give or take some small variables, you’re pretty much always on the same level. Even when your sub is upgraded, the primary thing that changes is that you can take more damage before exploding. So if you’re good, and/or very accurate on the draw, you could try circling around enemies and pelting them with cheap cannon shots while evading return fire. If you’re rich, you can use the expensive torpedoes from even farther away. If you’re bad and you have a death wish, you can close the distance and fire almost-guaranteed hits, just at the cost of probably taking a few licks yourself. And that’s before we get into things like using the terrain to hide, using the swirling gulf streams and engine overdrives to escape, or pitting different factions of enemies against each other (for as much as that’s possible).

Combat ties into both resource management and ship management. Resource-wise, every shot has to count: Both your gun ammo and your torpedoes are sharply limited, and it’s entirely possible to run out midway through. And even if you don’t, there’s always air to look after: A soft limiter during normal travel, extended battles might have you glancing at your air supply. Food doesn’t really operate on combat scales, but all the same, going into combat with no food means you’re severely penalized, because your crew refuses to work…

The crew system is… basically a bonus optimization puzzle. Each normal crew member has four stats (Strength, Endurance, Perception, Intelligence), and each officer station requires two stats for two different bonuses. The Gunnery station requires Perception for bonuses to accuracy and Strength for bonuses to fire rate, that sort of thing. Each point of stat for each crew member assigned to the station gives a 10% bonus.

Pop quiz: What would my total stats in both categories be if I added this second crewman here?

If you’re surprised to see number-crunching like this in an arcade-y sub battle game, you’ve already and without prompting hit on the major snag here. The one does not support the other. In this case, player ability seems to always trump stats: It doesn’t matter how ‘accurate’ my guns are if I just get up close, and it doesn’t matter how quickly my engine overdrive recharges if I never use it to begin with. As a result, the act of ‘hiring crew’ has this strange place in the game, where it’s obviously intended to be important and omnipresent: Half the people you meet in stations are potential sailors, with ludicrous hiring prices commensurate to their stats. I’m sure you get what you pay for, in the end. It just never feels like you do.

As for the character-driven story part… The bones are there, sure. It’s a little odd how the game positions things as you being the captain of this crew, but then always deferring all decisions and interactions to Jay and the rest, but fine, whatever. The bones are there. It’s just that Diluvion doesn’t really take anything like the time needed to flesh things out. Jay’s tragic backstory is told over time, but it relies on an understanding of the recent history and politics of this world that isn’t really told. Kat was a prisoner when you first meet here, but this is never delved into. Who even is Gregory? A lot of character development seems to happen offscreen, or just mentioned as having taking place: Suddenly Jay has an opinion on things, suddenly Kat and Gregory are friends, suddenly Torpedo Dude Who Threatened To Leave actually leaves. It feels like a plot synopsis in lieu of an actual plot.

Correspondingly, whenever Diluvion tries to trade on built-up character relations or narrative tensions (ham-handedly), things often fall flat.

Also, in true visual novel style, characters have *one* talking head graphic that they’ll use for literally every occasion.

What story is there isn’t even bad necessarily. It’s just underdeveloped. The lack of (functional) play space means that big beats have to follow each other quickly: You can’t really take the time to slowly develop a story, because the world isn’t there to support it and the player might well get bored of floating around the same small space for hours.

But if Diluvion isn’t an open world survival adventure game like Mount and Blade, and it isn’t an uncertain exploration game, and it isn’t a great arcade sub combat game, and it isn’t a particularly interesting character-driven narrative… what is it?

It’d be great if I had an answer to that question.

Final thoughts

It dawns that I haven’t even addressed my lesser issues with Diluvion. Stuff like: It makes no sense that you can try to ‘recruit’ people on subs you just sank, except they still demand to get paid. The particular murk quality of the water makes it really hard to make out anything, anywhere, ever. The autosaving is finicky and uncertain. There’s apparently a way to switch into the new guns you bought, but that never shows up in a tutorial or is explained — I assumed your sub just automatically used the best available gun until I looked up a Steam forum thread that said it didn’t. Having to pixel-hunt for chests and barrels to open feels strange and out-of-place, particularly when you learn that some good items can only be found this way. There’s a whole ‘develop your own home base’ system that doesn’t make any narrative sense, particularly when it shows up in all three areas with no explanation. Food is pointless busywork by almost any metric! Sonar pulses don’t nearly influence the way you perceive the world as much as the game likes to make you believe. Manually swapping crew is explained poorly, and automatically swapping crew always results in the wrong assignments. And so on, and so forth.

The unique character art is good, but non-unique art is re-used to the point of parody.

Putting it all together, you get… well, nothing. Try as I might, I can’t seem to pull Diluvion into some coherent whole. It is no more and no less than what it is: A collection of submarine-themed gameplay systems, a small-scale sub combat simulator with three levels and marginally balanced systems and the beginning of a story and some cool ideas it doesn’t trade on.

It’s also apparently still supposed to be in beta? I’m fairly sure it’s not marked as Early Access. That’s… I literally discovered this looking up a Steam link for this game, I’m not exaggerating this for the sake of review comedy. Wow. If that’s not a great signifier for Diluvion as a whole, I don’t know what is: The Game That’s Still In Beta Despite Not Marking Itself As Such.

If that’s worth twenty bucks for you, here you go.

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Jarenth is still not over the whole Secret Beta thing. To celebrate, follow him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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