One of the things I heard whenever I expressed my dislike for The Elder Scrolls titles, was that it got better with mods. This is a statement I find untrue due to them being still mechanically flawed and the idea of requiring the fans to fix them is just depressing. However, Nick Pearce went the extra mile after making The Forgotten City for Skyrim, and turned it into its own full game. This had him leave his day job, double the length of the script, use a new engine, and increase the quality of the overall presentation. I had my reservations because of my distaste for Bethesda’s fantasy series, but when it was on Game Pass and contained an intriguing setting, I figured I should give it a go.
Historical civilization coming to life
Taking place in Italy, you wake up nearby the river Tiber in a dark forest. Here, you are greeted by a young woman who bears an unfortunate name and seems to have rescued you from drowning. After chatting a bit, she asks if you could help her find a man named Al who went into the ruins. Upon entering these old constructions, you notice golden statues of people and writings that seem to foreshadow something unclear. Soon after, you find a portal where you are taken to a town that resembles an ancient Roman one, yet is alive and flourishing.
Similar to other titles driven by a strong mystery, I wish to keep any more insights vague as this entry is all about how you proceed with the story. Although, I can definitely say that this is a fascinating one where you need to question every step you take in order to uncover what is going on. I adore this, as you are always able to explore your surroundings, interact with the inhabitants, and try to learn elements about each person’s life in order to get closer to the answers you seek.
What helps this setting too, are the cultures you are presented with. This is based on Rome from 64 AD, meaning there is a lot of bewitching lore shown in this transitional era! It certainly got influences from ancient Greece and the rise of Christianity, but also contains continues discussions on how to lead a civilization and what correct ethics truly are. Furthermore, everything is historically accurate with appropriate writings and familiar personas that enhance the overall plot instead of being minor nods, which makes this project’s use of source material respectful and inviting.
Additionally, I also love how effectively it includes old quotations that will subtly give more enlightenment into what is going on, such as “difficulties strengthen the mind like labours do the body”. The residents are just as mesmerising, with them all being believable, diverse, and intriguing. Despite not all being equally deep, they all have a story to tell and are affected by the golden statues in some way, but none are simply good or bad people, just complicated. This is to the point that I wanted to learn about everyone’s personality and background, be it the grumpy soldier Rufius or the troubled blacksmith Vergil.
The aspect of how well all of this is executed continues, with the inhabitants talking to each other in a manner that showcases their relationships and characteristics instead of being unintelligent fluff! Correspondingly, your own actions have consequences and can go so far as to make certain NPCs avoid talking to you or even despise you. Truthfully, this is just a wonderful experience that offers a gorgeous take on a historical era to explore, with captivating discussions reflecting various cultures and beliefs beautifully.
In fact, the only thing I can nitpick on is one of the endings. Three of the four are interesting and do provide multiple bittersweet ways for this story to conclude. Although, the fourth one which is even labelled canon, has a bizarre setup. Part of me enjoys it due to how big of a surreal contrast it is to the rest of the tale, though it can take you out of the immersion with its shift in tone. Yet, this is not my main issue here. It is actually the aftermath that while endearing, is incredibly cheesy and can be hard to swallow. However, it should be noted that this small problem is heavily subjective and merely an optional one to partake in.
Because of how magnificently everything comes together to make this into a breathing world, I was glued to the screen every second of my playthrough. With realistic characters that have clear influences from culture and an enchanting metropolis to investigate holding an uncomfortable enigma, The Forgotten City knows how to tell a mystery that makes you enthralled in every nook and cranny of it.
Story Score: 9.5/10
Exploration and conversations
Within this first-person adventure title, you start off by choosing the colours of your hands and their body type, before deciding what your backstory is for added benefits. This is already an admirable attempt at taking a fun stab at how avatar customization is meaningless in projects where you never see your face, though the essential classes leave a lot to be desired. Soldier gets a firearm with ten rounds, fugitive makes you move 25% faster, amnesiac lets you take more damage, and archaeologists will be able to ask more questions or decipher info for more knowledge. None of them really adds to the atmosphere, and the educated one is honestly the singular one in tone with the main gameplay, making me confused at the ability to choose at all.
Speaking of, this is a journey all about exploration and doing quests. This is already shown in the abilities you have, which include jumping, crouching, sprinting, climbing ledges and specific surfaces, swimming, taking/stealing items, as well as talking to NPCs for gaining information. Your objectives are neatly kept track of in your menu, with hints and objective markers being possible to toggle on or off for obtaining a preferred challenge.
Every task is fascinating in its own right, as they can affect others or contain multiple steps through research and looking around, making them quite compelling. While you do not possess a map, characters have clear establishments and the town itself is easy to remember the layout of, despite its big size. However, should you do something that is deemed sinful, you will have only a certain amount of time to escape the wrath of the gods and get back to your starting point for a time loop.
This is where the main gimmick comes in, as you will have to plan each revisit in order to get the most out of the interactions and discoveries you made. Luckily, The Forgotten City avoids repetition due to shortcuts being unlocked already after the first restart and you keep all the trinkets you collected throughout, making refinishing specific quests easy and nonchalant to do. Because of this, you are constantly on a steady pace to figure out what is going on, which is wonderful!
I also enjoy how people will react accordingly if they see you snooping around or events having consequences for you to learn from, with no rethreads being long or overwhelming. The canon ending even expects you to discover certain key items and do just about every task in the game, which is engaging despite the reward being debatable in terms of quality. Although, since investigating is such a big part of the journey, including finding ancient scriptures, it is hard to separate side content and the key ones due to how they complement each other directly. This is far from a criticism, but rather an interesting approach taken in this project that I do commend.
Denarii and other trinkets to find are solely for completing quests, though there are two exceptions to this. One is your flashlight which is only here for seeing in the dark. The other is a bow used for both dealing with foes and turning flimsy surfaces solid, with the latter being great for making things climbable or to stand on, thus enhancing the exploration while offering some neat platforming. It is far from complex, but does require you to look thoroughly around for where you can progress.
When it comes to the combat though, it is really lacklustre. You have limited ammunition and need to charge each shot, but you will never be short on arrows due to how much there is to find and the opponents are rather dumb. Every single one of them will merely run towards you and only require two hits to take out, with one to their head making them instantly defeated. I do like how you need to be accurate and can even kick opponents if they get too close, yet despite encountering hordes of them, I was never in any danger to the point that I forgot that I had a health bar.
Thankfully, the shallow fights are not a main part of the adventure and everything is done to make the overall playthrough a comfortable one. Following NPCs can be done automatically, butterflies will show you pathways if enabled, hints can be offered by unknown voices when completely stuck, and quests relate to each other for easy tracking while still being challenging enough to force you to explore. I did glitch in the scenarios at times and the campaign is beatable within eight hours, with half of that being spent on obtaining the lesser endings, but this was still a nice expedition to spend a weekend on.
Gameplay Score: 7/10
More than just a graphical mod
Recreating any ancient civilisation is a hard task to execute, but this project has done a magnificent job at that! Taking on Roman aesthetics, every area is sectioned and has distinct structures, such as a market with temples, slums with a bar and homes, an amphitheatre for people nearby to vote and discuss, and so on. All fit this represented era and are lovely created with beautiful textures that make every surface feel real. This also extends to decorative items, be they appropriate plants, fabric to show wealth or useful tools for the profession one has.
Impressing me further are the clothing on every character, with the togas having weariness with strings hanging and armours being shiny to display status. Combine this with set pieces to indicate subtle events that took place, and you can tell this is a game all about having keen eyes. Even rubbles tell a story, which is an incredible form of detail. What I did find odd though, was that The Forgotten City did not notify me about the 14 filters you could toggle between for your own entertainment. Even if I prefer to play without them, the pixel, cartoon, and old TV ones were fun to try out.
People themselves are believable in their behaviours, as they go ahead with their daily lives and chat with each other to showcase relationships. Despite that they stand quite stiff whenever you talk to them and their lip-syncing is off, they come with solid facial expressions to convey diverse emotions. I am also happy to see that they have decent animations in general and do different activities. Perhaps it sounds strange to applaud a title that actually interacts with items and environments with realistic gestures, but anyone familiar with Skyrim knows how awkward this could have been.
There are honestly a few minor problems in the presentation, such as the NPCs’ hairs looking unintentionally fat, the lightning being obviously not dynamic, and opening doors happening without touching it at all. Luckily, everything else is fantastically made to the point that you can directly read as you merely stare at the scriptures in this world. Supporting the immersion even further is the amazing audio. Hearing fires sparkling from torches, critters hopping around, and your own footsteps on various surfaces, are all effective and enhance the setting gorgeously.
Furthermore, the voice actors are phenomenal and offer each character a distinct tone. Whether it be the old scared lady, the serious magistrate, the friendly Greek tailor or the sneaky salesman, all are memorable with outstanding directions and clear personalities in their roles. The only part that is even more remarkable, is the soundtrack. Composed by Micheal Allen, all pieces use instruments that you would find from this era and have influences from Roman, Egyptian, and so on.
Because of this, you are given perfect atmospheres through the incredibly diverse uses of notes and rhythms. Mystical choirs accompanied by violins, a harp giving an uplifting melody, and a bombastic orchestra for tense moments, there is a ton of styles that fit this universe and I love how all of them are built up nicely. Not all are authentic to their respective cultures, but each adds to make events stronger and this metropolis alive.
Presentation Score: 8.5/10
I think what The Forgotten City showed me is how important it is to try new stuff and be adventurous. Had I avoided it, I would have missed out on a wonderful game with a believable setting, intriguing mystery, fascinating town, and enjoyable exploration that enhances the detailed presentation. It is impressive what Nick Pearce and his team were capable of doing, as they took criticisms of Skyrim and did their best to make this a project worth seeing through. Certainly a bit rough around the edges, but what beautiful artefacts are not?