The time loop genre seems to have had a bit of resurgence in recent years. Film has had the very enjoyable Happy Death Day films and the recent Palm Springs. There has also been the excellent Russian Doll playing with the format in episodic form. Then there has been life, where each day feels much like the last whilst we were all in lockdown.
Not to be outdone, gaming has had a toy with the formula too, with notable games such as the delightful Outer Wilds and the upcoming Deathloop from immersive sims maestros Arkane.
The Forgotten City is not actually from this current wave of nostalgia for Groundhog Day, being based on a mod for Skyrim that originally came out back in 2015. Developers, Modern Storyteller, have gone and given a sprucing up, making it standalone and shifting it over to the Unreal Engine. The result is something that is a great story, fun mechanics and brilliant little mystery to unpick.
The game sees the player transported back in time to a hidden Roman city, tasked by the magistrate of this city with hunting someone who will be a rule breaker. The rule they are going to break is the ultimate rule, known as the Golden Rule. The city has only one rule and if that rule is broken then all 20-odd inhabitants will suffer the consequences, becoming one of the golden statues that you see all around the city. Fail in finding the culprit (or break the rule yourself) and you will need to transport back in time to the start of the loop to resume your investigation.
As hooks go, it is a strong one. It is a simple setup, but one that instantly manages to capture the imagination and forces to player to ponder many questions, both in terms of solving this particular mystery and of the wider philosophical questions regarding the Golden Rule. Although working out who will break the rule and how to prevent them from doing it is the central mystery through most of the game, you also will stumble upon other smaller problems to solve throughout your time in this city, from finding missing persons, working out which of the gods is responsible for this rule and helping people with their troubles. All of these connect together in quite a satisfying way and are told expertly throughout. Even when the central purpose of the city is revealed about halfway through your time with the game and it is the answer that many familiar with these types of tales will likely expect, the further unravelling expands upon it in interesting ways.
Much of the discovery within the game is done through your dialogue with the other inhabitants in the city. Those that want to venture into The Forgotten City should be prepared for plenty of listening to characters talking, as the city’s occupants are quite verbose. You will be spending a large amount of time working your way through these dialogue trees with each of the 25 or so characters, as you piece together what is going and how you might be able to help them with their problems. On occasion, you do have to pick your words with caution instead of just selecting all the options, as you might insult someone who will no longer talk to you. For the most part though, you are just going through all the options you can. It is fortunate then that the dialogue itself is excellent and enjoyable to go through. Without the well written prose for the characters to be speaking, it would be hard to recommend this game, as you will spend most of the time listening to them, but developers here have done a great job of elevating the dialogue to a level that is above what you would generally see in games. The characters are distinctive and it is clearly shown through the words they use. The voice acting is mostly fine to listen to too, although it is clear that we are in the realms of an indie dev’s budget. They all give it their all though and none are unpleasant to listen to.
When not talking to other characters, you will also be exploring this city. It is a beautifully realised place to walk around, initially seeming quite small, but with a density of winding streets, along with little nooks and crannies to go pocking about in. After a few hours, you will still find yourself stumbling into new areas that you haven’t really explored yet. It is also just lovely to look at the smaller details too, from little shrines, to vases and ink pots. There is an air authenticity to everything you are seeing and the short descriptions that gives the sense that this environment has been researched thoroughly and had plenty of love poured into every object’s placement. I have no doubt that those who experts in the field of Roman history will find plenty of anachronisms, but it sells itself in this regard brilliantly. More so than a theme park game like Assassin’s Creed, it weaves in elements of history and mythology into its tale that makes you buy these characters as real Romans.
Outside of chilling out at the Roman baths and philosophising about Pluto, you will also be playing around with the looping mechanic. This does become central to solving many of the problems that you will encounter and it is handled with a subtlety that exudes most other areas of the game. As you begin a loop with the items and knowledge that you left the previous loop with, there are plenty of opportunities to manipulate events the way you need them to go. It even will allow for a few different solutions to the same problem. For example, a woman is poisoned and the remedy is being extortionately sold by a merchant. You can steal the remedy, breaking the Golden Rule and forcing you to restart the loop with the remedy still in your possession. Alternatively, you can also steal money from the merchant and buy the remedy with his own money. For those thinking with loops, yes that does mean he ends up with the money you stole in the other loop plus his money in that current loop, but there is still a delicious irony to buying something with the merchant’s own money (and yes, you could keep stealing his money and resetting the loop over and over again).
You are guided through these puzzles quite a bit with objectives, but the player does use their noggin just enough to feel smart whilst doing it. I’m not sure if anyone is likely to ever feel particularly stuck trying to think how to solve the puzzles on offer, but there is just enough working your way through some of these to make it satisfying. It also gives a good pacing to the game, with you never really wondering what to do next. There is normally plenty of different tasks on offer that when you aren’t sure how to proceed with one you can just go doing something else until the solution presents itself.
It also manages to mostly avoid the pitfall of repetition that can present itself with loop mechanics. Although there will be occasions that you need to go through repeated dialogue (mostly all skippable), the game offers a few nice tricks to make sure it is limited. There is a character that you meet when first arriving that can be tasked for completing a few of the quests for you once you have done them once, meaning each loop doesn’t require you to start by running around the city. This also smartly feeds into one of your later quests too. There aren’t too many failure states that force you to repeat the loop either. The way Modern Storyteller have managed to avoid frustration with this mechanic is one of the most impressive elements of the game, with the tight 6-8 hours that you spend with the game being mostly an act of discovery.
There are few stumbling points that should be mentioned though. There are one or two more linear areas that are less interesting. One of these also features quite a bit of combat, something that is irrelevant for the most part and likely shouldn’t have been included. The enemies faced offer a very uninteresting foe to fight, as they simply charge at you. The weapon you have to defeat them is also not the most pleasant to use. The game does give you a prompt to warn you that a dialogue choice will lead to action and horror elements, so it is avoidable if you wish. How that actually effects the development of the story though I’m not sure, as it leads to quite a big reveal, as well as giving you access to an important item that allows you to access many previously unreachable areas (this might be accessible without doing the questline though). A later area that also featured combat didn’t present that warning, but it might just have been because I had already gone with the earlier quest. Not doing either of these appears as if they would definitely cut you off from some of the endings, particularly the true ending.
This only takes up a brief moment with your time in The Forgotten City though and I don’t think they should deter anyone that fancies a good mystery. The stories and characters are superb throughout and I was eager to uncover each of the endings (I managed 3 out of the 4, with the one listed as the third in the achievements remaining elusive to me). When I did reach the true ending, I felt satisfied with my time there. I don’t think there would be a huge opportunity for replaying, but this is a smartly told tale that will stay with me for some time and raises some interesting questions that I could ponder long after the credits rolled. Anyone that is interested in good writing in their games should take a trip across the river to The Forgotten City.