Have you heard? Time loops are all the rage these days. In recent years, the trope has become increasingly popular in multimedia. In the past, it was most commonly used as a narrative device in traditional Sci-Fi, but its use has become just as popular in more “down-to-earth” stories. The movie Palm Springs, and the series Russian Doll are two recent releases with modern tales that make use of time loops, and it’s sprinkled all over the Marvel cinematic universe with Loki being the latest creation to utilize it. Its use in video games might not have been as prolific over the past few years but there’s been a steady flow – Outer Wilds, and Minit are two recent examples. There is also a quartet of time looping games on the immediate horizon: The Forgotten City, 12 Minutes, Lemnis Gate, and Death Loop (Xbox gamers will have to wait a bit for this one, unfortunately). The Forgotten City is the first of the four to make its debut and also what spurred me to look into this trope’s increased use. While none of these developers can necessarily be accused of jumping on (or into) the time loop bandwagon (due to the average length it takes to make a game). This is especially true of Modern Storyteller, the developers of The Forgotten City, a first-person adventure mystery game.
After originally taking form as a popular, award-winning Skyrim mod released in 2015, the sole creator put together a small studio and rebuilt The Forgotten City from the ground up using the Unreal Engine. I had never heard of the mod before I volunteered to review this game, but after doing some light research I learned that the time looping storyline had its inception there. The game takes place in a somewhat peculiar Roman city built inside what looks to be a canyon. You arrive in the city shortly after falling through a trapdoor in a temple that you were led to after agreeing to look for a young woman’s lost friend. Once you are in the city you immediately meet Galerius, who’s in the running for the friendliest NPC ever. Through a humorous exchange, you learn that you have travelled back in time roughly 2000 years from the present. Next, he offers to give you a quick tour (if you wish) and leads you to the magistrate, who wants to talk to you.
The magistrate (essentially the mayor/elected ruler) explains that the survival of the city hinges on the citizens always abiding by the Golden Rule. He’s unclear as to everything that will break the Golden Rule but assures you that typical immoral behavior like killing and stealing will surely break it. If broken by any one person, all the inhabitants will turn to gold. “The many will suffer for the sins of the one” is a common tagline seen and heard throughout the game. This might seem kind of far-fetched but if you’ve paid any attention at all to your surroundings there are gold statues everywhere, and not just statues on pedestals, there are countless statues in unnatural poses standing or on the ground, most of which are cowering in fear. You get the uncanny sense that some might even be watching you. He tells you he called you thereby performing a ritual as a last-ditch effort to survive after someone broke the Golden Rule. The ritual brings someone back in time to the beginning of the day in question, giving that person the opportunity to figure out who is about to break the Golden Rule so they can be stopped before doing so, saving the city – for the time being at least.
He tells you to begin your investigation by talking to everyone and getting the lay of the land, and you gain a few quests in your logbook (accessed by pressing Y). The community started out with twenty-two individuals and as you start talking to people you’ll begin getting more quests including some that involve locating those individuals. It seemed like I was getting a new quest from almost every person I talked to, which felt kind of overwhelming at first. Fear not, however, as there isn’t really a time limit, and because of the time loop mechanic, you can try different conversational tactics the next time around since you keep any items you’ve found and retain all information. I’ll tell you right now, the Golden Rule will be broken, many times, and perhaps sometimes by you, but each time you will restart the day from the same location as before. You might be thinking, “Does that mean I have to redo everything I’ve already done each time?’ Don’t worry, the developers have a helpful solution to that written into the story right when you start the new (or rather the same) day.
There are many other clever parts to the story, most of which are very satisfying to discover; whether you had inklings towards them or if they were a complete surprise. A lot of the quests have multiple paths and ways to complete them, but there were a few times where I thought that something else would have made a lot of sense as a solution as well. Modern Storytellers are a small three person team so in actuality the number of branches each quest and the story as a whole has is impressive. In all, there are four endings, three of which I reached. Some can be obtained rather quickly if you know what to do, but are very unsatisfying compared to the fourth, canonical ending. So there is a fair amount of replayability, but you could also use one save file to get multiple endings as well.
Despite being remade in Unreal there are many elements that felt familiar to me as a Skyrim player. The characters have a Bethesda look to them but are more detailed than those in their most recent games. Perhaps I saw a resemblance because the conversation camera view is exactly like a Bethesda game, in the first person, and zooms in to the character, sometimes even waiting for a second or two for them or the game engine to respond to you pressing A. The player’s action mechanics also felt similar from movement to the weapon use. Like every recent Bethesda RPG, the quest lines provide waypoints when applicable, but you can only have one quest highlighted at a time. You can work on multiple quests at once though.
The trailer does a fantastic job making the action segments look thrilling, but they’re actually somewhere between slightly dull and average. It doesn’t help that the excitement you might feel the first time experiencing them is greatly reduced when playing those parts a second or third time, although most of those segments only need to be played once in each playthrough. They are a nice diversion from the other gameplay elements and I am definitely glad they are a part of the game. Variety is always good; however, I can’t help but wish those segments were a little more compelling. The developers have done a good job making the overall gameplay accessible to most if not all skill levels and this might not be the case if the action parts were more intense. The game makes use of a save system very much like Skyrim. You can save pretty much at any time from the pause menu, I think the only time you can’t is during conversations. There are also frequent autosaves, which seemed to trigger after any interaction that would affect the story. There are five or six autosave slots and plenty of regular save slots giving you many options to go back and retry something if you wish, but it’s hard to tell each save apart – the only information given is location, time played, and time of save. Having a picture of the viewpoint when you saved would have been appreciated.
Once you explore the city you realize that it isn’t all that big, but there are some extra sections that add to the size and variety of the environment. Overall the art direction is of good quality, and the design of the Roman city and other areas felt very realistic. This is due in part to the fact that they collaborated with two ancient history experts to get all the details correct. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s overly educational but is on the level of some of the earlier Assassin’s Creed games (before you could take a narrated tour through the environment). The lighting might have been my favorite part of the art design; despite it taking place during daylight, there are many interior spots or places in the shade that look great lit by the various fire sources. It’s hard for me to really judge the art direction though because there were a few hiccups in the build I was playing. The developers assured us that they were working on fixes and that a patch would be up on the day of release; however, I won’t have time to replay a large portion of the game to test everything. I am playing on an O.G. Xbox One so I always give more graphically intensive games like this some leeway, especially if I’m playing prior to release. I will say that the game never crashed on me, which I cannot say for any one of the Bethesda games I’ve played. One extra element of the art design I should mention are the numerous artistic filters that can be scrolled through while playing the game, most are kind of odd like the Gameboy-inspired one. Alternatively, I couldn’t help but like the two that transform the world into what looks like a pixelated mid-90s first-person game. There is also a photo mode that can be accessed quickly with a press of the d-pad.
Most aspects of the audio design are superb. The soundtrack consists of orchestral music that pairs perfectly with the setting. It’s dynamic as well, changing anytime you are in danger or something negative has happened. All of the characters are fully voiced and this is the best part of the audio design. There is a nice variety in the accents of the characters and the first time listening to all the conversations was a joy. Fortunately, you can quickly skip through dialogue that you’ve already heard with a press of the B button. There are a few ambient conversations that I heard one too many times and I think if they recorded and implemented a few more it would have enriched the game by making it more immersive. The sound effects, for the most part, were decent but there was one in particular that I felt was off, I can’t tell you the source however because I’m trying to spoil as little as possible.
The Forgotten City features a compelling story taking place in a mystifying city. The writing is more than clever and has you experiencing both horror and mirth. The deduction aspect of the game might not be breaking any new ground but the experience is enjoyable and worthwhile as a whole. If you’re unsure of this one then maybe wait to make sure the patch is fully implemented. I would also avoid any playthrough videos as they could easily spoil the story, and that is the most satisfying part of the game.Become a Patron!
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.