Fathoming Fathom’s fathoms

James Haresign April 4, 2013 - 4:00 pm

Underwater puzzler Fathom might not have weathered the waters of Kickstarter well, but we go hands-on to see if the game can sink or swim on its own.

Fathom preview 1

Fathom is another unfortunate victim of Kickstarter becoming a way of funding old genres and reboots. In its month long campaign it not only had to worry about the powerhouses of Torment: Tides of Numenera, but also the utterly brilliant Veronica Mars showing up. So it’s understandable Ironsun Studios struggled for attention.

That’s a shame, because after spending a little time with Fathom, it shows a lot of promise. In a Steampunk Victorian England, Nathaniel Lockhart is plagued of memories of a mysterious craft attacking his boat, and now has the design for a rather unique submersible lodged in his brain. After building it, he sets off back to the Caribbean to find that mysterious vessel. Which is where you come in.

Descending into a series of underwater caves, I was immediately struck by the idea that my investigation was leading to a long abandoned steampunk Atlantis. The wrought iron airlocks and degraded machinery invoke all the right tropes. Immediate thoughts of a sunken Metroid also flooded in, as you have to navigate your way through a set of tunnels, trying to unlock the buried secrets and fighting off security drones as you go.

Or at least that’s what it could be. The level I played was quite linear and the puzzles aren’t really puzzles; just go find the key, unlock the door, find the next key. Again, it was the first level, so this might be a sign of just easing you in. The level design certainly seemed to be getting larger and more labyrinthine the deeper I went.

Fathom preview 2

But, while it might be a bit too straight forward to play, it’s bloody gorgeous to look at. As I already mentioned, the airlocks and machinery do a great job of conveying both the clockwork stylings of steampunk and the mysticism of Atlantis. A sunken ship found during my travels looked amazing and rusted from its time on the ocean floor, though I do wonder how it got into those tunnels.


The Little Metroid

There’s the oceanic organisms swimming about that give Fathom its 2.5D look and breathe life into the underwater setting. While you, your enemies, and the map are all stuck on one plane, the more innocent inhabitants of the cave network have a little more freedom and remind you that you’re a stranger in a very strange land.

Though a couple of elements that are usuable to the player could be made clearer. In the process of solving one puzzle – and some random clicking – a rock turned out to be metallic, which struck me as quite odd. It was only when I picked it up again that I noticed an anchor embedded in the rock. That anchor was exactly the same colour as the stone, so it was quite easy to miss. I only solved it by luck, and only realised why it had worked after the fact.

It wasn’t just the look of the boulder that was a bit off, but the feel of it too. It moved like I’d picked up a rolled up piece of paper, and looked like it weighed the same to boot. Again, though, there are other instances of the physics working really well, such as the mines – which you can tell the devs are happy with since they go out of their way to show them off during the trailer.

Fathom preview 3

While that rock hiccup was jarring, it is hopefully a rarity. Fathom on the whole is a gorgeous game, really capturing the exoticness of travelling along the ocean floor. The design of the giant shark submarine in particular is awesome, and I was immediately getting a steampunk/40,000 Leagues under the Sea vibe and it left me wanting to discover its mysteries – always a good sign after such a short time playing.

The controls are also quite a bit fiddly at the moment, at least for me. I use a Xbox 360 controller for games of this ilk, and Fathom only half supports that method; the half to control the movement of the ship. To control the crosshair I had to have a hand on my mouse, which left things a bit awkward. It could be quite easy to give this two stick shooter controls which would make things a lot more intuitive. Switching to a more traditional keyboard and mouse felt okay, I just want full controller support.

If they can solve these problems, Fathom could be a lot of fun – let’s just hope the Kickstarter failing hasn’t knocked them back too much.

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