Certain games transcend their genre, executing so well on a single vision that they cement a lasting legacy within the broader medium. Roman murder mystery The Forgotten City should be one such title, a masterclass in cause-and-effect storytelling, dialogue writing, time loop manipulation, artistic vision and rewarding player decision-making.
It’s a genius, hidden gem. Or more appropriately, a shiny piece of gold.
Developed by the aptly-named Modern Storyteller, a small team out of Australia, it has an intriguing backstory of its own. The title began as founder Nick Pearce’s mod for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a high quality quest-line in its own right that received a national Writers’ Guild award and attracted over 3 million downloads at the time.
Pearce and team have since crafted a full-blown release, the result being a crafty first-person narrative adventure driven by choice around themes of history, morality, mythology, philosophy and societal norms.
Right from the start, it’s enchanting and mysterious. The player character wakes up in present day along the River Tiber in Italy. Memory fuzzy, greeted solely by a non-playable character (NPC) at a campfire. This random woman hands you a flashlight, mentions nearby ruins then requests you search within for an explorer named Al Worth.
The Forgotten City is all about choice. The first is picking one of four “classes,” each with a bespoke attribute. Archaeologist is undoubtedly the strongest, a knowledgeable role that offers unique decision-making opportunities. Soldier has a gun, handy for brute force styles since weapons are banned in the city. Fugitive can move around more quickly while Amnesiac is heartier in cases of falling or taking damage.
It’s time to enter a rundown version of a long-lost underground civilization. There are no people, other than Roman statues encased in gold. Mostly just crumbled remains of deceased architecture. Al’s hanging corpse is dangling next to a letter in which he bemoans his time here, saying he relived the same day over and over until he went mad.
Then, like most good time travel stories, the handy wormhole appears. Yes, as a looping game, it’s certainly a popular trope in the space. Except here it’s one of the best implementations across the history of games. Shooting the player 2,000 years in the past, this is when things really picks up.
Its location is an exquisite underground Roman locale filled with a towering temple, arching aqueducts, various shops, downtrodden slums and murky caverns. Those familiar shimmering golden statues adorn the streets, marble columns dot the landscape, green vines snake up structures and gleaming villas stand tall in the blinding sunlight. Art direction is the real standout, successfully capturing an ancient backdrop straight out of history books.
Players are introduced to the general plot via character discussions upon entering this timeline. Local farmer Galerius introduces The Golden Rule, a single law dictating everyone’s existence here: If someone commits a crime, everyone dies. “The many shall suffer for the sins of the one.”
Leader and Magistrate Sentius then outlines the reason for the player’s visit. Someone is about to break this rule, which would quite literally devastate the community. He secretly explains how you got here: His reciting of a prayer to Proserpina, goddess of spring and renewal, created the wormhole. It has to be solved quickly. Resolving the crisis will create a time paradox to save the people here and leave the past behind for the player out of time.
Of course, deep down there’s a lot more to it. Suffice to say there’s important information hidden beneath the surface from a story standpoint plus physical locations with significant ramifications.
At its heart, The Forgotten City is a narrative puzzle game combined with robust lessons in history, mythology and philosophy. While there are light action sequences and environmental traversal elements, conversations are the true puzzles. The player must navigate relationships, deduce from clues, make key decisions then live or die with the consequences.
The fun part is how Modern Storyteller gets creative with the time mechanic towards this end, as the player retains inventory. Knowledge gleaned from prior visits carries over to future loops. Clues can be used to manipulate outcomes. It’s not forced, instead it feels organic which means it’s that much more rewarding.
The Forgotten City smartly eases the player into the world, learning tidbits from every dialogue choice then returning to characters to get even more after finding information elsewhere.
Narrative strength arises from well-written characters, intertwined relationships, events that trigger story beats plus mini-quests that tie back to the main campaign. There’s an important election taking place. The Magistrate’s daughter is missing. A local woman is poisoned, while a man wishes to commit suicide. There’s an armed intruder in the baths. A merchant is being harassed for his sexuality. One character is acting very strangely plus another is locked behind bars.
What caused these events? When did they happen, and can they be influenced? Which one of these will break The Golden Rule to trigger the god’s wrath? What counts as a sin in this older society that might not in modern times, or vice versa? These and more are the questions asked in The Forgotten City, and most times the player has a say in how they turn out.
It’s especially great how the setting and mystery setup allow for philosophizing on important topics like societal elements, general morality and who determines right versus wrong. It’s like a history lesson or mythology class. Except, unlike high school, learning here is disguised as fun because it supplements key narrative points. Learning what breaks The Golden Rule is as important as knowing how to walk a fine line around it.
Honestly, like any good media with philosophy as a theme, it presents as many questions as there are answers. There’s even a character that lives to debate who will help the player if they engage in spirited discussions on some of life’s biggest questions. Is there a way to judge people’s actions separate of the time and place in which they live? Are there sins that are always off limits? What about varying degrees of transgression, or cases of self-defense? The game presents questions around whether or not humanity is inherently good or evil to the core.
Around the mythological portions, Roman is the dominant variety of course. Yet there’s also a Greek and Egyptian character respectively, so each of these is represented. There’s discourse on how civilizations build on one another across history. Even though stories are adapted or names are changed, there’s a thru-line. What type of god imposes The Golden Rule? Can it be exposed for inherent contradictions, and will that help the player break the cycle? The Forgotten City decides these in its own way, especially for the most persistent of players.
While there are light action sequences and environmental traversal elements, conversations are the true puzzles. The player must navigate relationships, deduce from clues, make key decisions then live or die with the consequences.
In terms of structure, the handful of main quests are interconnected with side stories. Information from a mini-quest is often used towards achieving goals within the overarching narrative. Exploratory dialogue is recommended if not necessary. Figuring out the bigger picture. Finding common threads takes getting to know every character, their routine and underlying motivations. There are certain characters that help towards these ends. The aforementioned farmer Galerius can be sent on tasks. The kind hearted Vestal Priestess Equitia has a feeling about the true nature of this slightly off world, and asks the player to assist in uncovering its mystery.
Gameplay is standard first person walking, running or traversing when possible. There are times of light action, notably when equipped with a flashlight or bow. Thing is, the gameplay doesn’t have to be anything more than it already is. Simplicity works. It serves the overall concept well without being overly complicated. Very friendly to players of all skill or ability levels, accessible to many.
Exploration on foot is nearly always rewarded. Finding new information, written notes, spare denarii (money at the time) or environmental clues. Certain areas that might be accessed, either at that time or later in the game. There’s even zip-lines for added mobility! Perhaps not the most realistic world feature of that era, yet it helps with moving quickly when time is of the essence.
The minimal action elements revolve around the Golden Bow of Diana, which is more a means of movement than weapon as it can “gild” parts of surrounding areas, making them solid enough to support one’s weight. It’s the single item that drastically opens up a play-thru, offering access to areas only seen until that point. Like being able to scale a wall or walk on algae at the surface of water. Acquiring it requires witty decisions then a spectacular quest, the most action-heavy of all, taking place through an off limits part of the world. The feeling of freedom is breathtaking when returning to the open map, one of the best moments in a game full of memories.
On the weapon side, there are “enemies” in The Forgotten City. Nontraditional and sparse as they are. Like many things, they actually serve an important story purpose. Especially as it relates to one character. Shooting is pretty average. Using the reticle is essential. It gets the job done, albeit clumsily at times. There’s also a kicking mechanic during action sections that helps a bunch.
Now, nuance and creativity are the game’s major strengths. It first presents as a standard whodunit: Figure out who will commit the crime, report it and supposedly that’s all there is to it. Of course it isn’t, yet the way it reveals that and progresses its story is quite clever.
Certain games claim that choice matters when in practice outcomes are really limited. The Forgotten City is the real deal. Here, decisions are what determine everything. There are multiple ways to figure out its problems or traverse its world. Characters will refuse to talk if they are offended. Dialogue opens up if they are impressed. They even realize when people are playing them, turning on an instant. There’s differences depending on the order of events. People start to figure out what’s going on, like old Livia who speaks in code or former doctor Naevia in her locked away palace.
Within the pattern of speech, the game can even suggest lying. Certain circumstances benefit from it, even if playing a virtuous role because there are scoundrels that will take advantage of a passive player. Still, there’s always the downside that any single lie might cause one’s death thus forcing the god’s wrath.
There’s an ingenious hint system in the form of gossip via tavern owner Aurelia. Pay ten coin, hear rumblings within the community. This could trigger a new idea or reveal a side quest opportunity without even knowing it, rather than having to actively seek out discussions or written clues.
One significant downside of games relying on time loops is repetition. Can a developer make it so the player doesn’t have to do the same thing every time? Modern Storyteller offers a great solution. Right at the beginning of each loop, Galerius greets the player. For the sake of time, he can assist with completing tasks already figured out in previous loops. For instance, he’ll run to the local healer with the remedy for a certain affliction impacting a fellow resident. When there’s a time constraint, an NPC offering this kind of assistance is downright essential.
Speaking of that, the time loop system itself is flexible and inventive. There’s different ways to trigger it. Any crime committed, even by the player, will cause certain golden statues to come alive and wield arrows that take down the civilization. Separately, the default election result will automatically break The Golden Rule. Good news is the player can influence the outcome, thus extending a given cycle. What’s also nice is technically there’s no true failure state. The game even pops up a tip when trying to reload a save after making certain decisions, saying that it’s often beneficial to let things play out because of how the time loop operates. And I agree with that sentiment.
One subtle aspect that truly impressed was sound design. There are audio queues or dialogue hints when certain events happen around the map that help keep the timeline straight. A place of worship crumbles to the ground. A man leaps to his death. The god is angered by a sin, triggering a narrow escape to the wormhole to dive into the next loop. Characters talk with each other about random topics to the point where overhearing them can trigger a quest.
While often serious, there’s plenty of humor too. Sometimes dark, yet comedy nonetheless. Despite its ancient timeframe, the team sneaks in modern day trappings and language evolution which allows for creative jokes. Since the woman at the campfire is named Karen, there’s mention of memes. The player character can bring up surviving a pandemic in one chat. Having someone from the 21st century dropped into a situation like this allows writers to flex some really comical fourth-wall breaking.
The Forgotten City cleverly scatters breadcrumbs and leverages its cycle-based time mechanic to great effect, a masterful display of how words always have impact and characters will react, often strongly, to affectations.
Even the best of games like The Forgotten City aren’t without fault. Thing is, my main critiques are mostly at the fringes. General performance on current generation was steady at 60 frames-per-second as confirmed by tech analysis online, though it sounds like PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles have inconsistencies in this department. It can hitch slightly for a second or two when loading between areas, even on Xbox Series X (and I assume PlayStation 5, haven’t tested). Artwork carries its look more than anything else in the visual department.
Like many games from smaller studios, unfortunately there are limited options in the settings menu. On the video side, there’s motion blur, gamma and thankfully field-of-view. No option for performance versus resolution, which is becoming more popular these days and I bet would be welcome on last generation consoles in particular.
It needs more accessibility features, period. Subtitles, text size and language changes are really the only in this category. Controller bindings are locked which means there’s no game pad button mapping options. It feels like an adventure game fit into the first-person controls, with odd bindings like jump as B and inventory on Y on an Xbox pad. Even having a couple different control setups would be fine. Full customization is preferred.
Animations can be jerky, especially when say chatting with a character or climbing up vines. Aiming the bow is flimsy, kind of expected for a title that isn’t focused on mechanical prowess. There’s a minimal bug that prevents equipping items without opening the inventory or menu, a minor annoyance especially during one of its sparse action sequences.
The city itself is a small enough area once learned that not having a map isn’t a major concern, though I could see some players asking for one. More importantly I wish it had better quest marker implementation. Maybe allow the player to set beacons or waypoints to remind of important action items. Highlighting a quest will sometimes place a static waypoint, it’s just not very flexible. Like I said, not major complaints.
With a lean towards choices and a variety of ways to figure out its biggest mysteries, all efforts in Modern Storyteller’s project lead to one of four different endings. The biggest of which is a true “canon” outcome, which happens after an intense finale amidst staggering revelations. There’s a major payoff to all the investigating and decision-making, culminating in an exceptional epilogue. The true nature of this underground locale pays off, and is wholly believable.
I love when games make the player feel smart, it’s one of the most satisfying parts of a well-made experience. Like they are clever enough to make sense of jumbled clues, misdirection and hidden intent. Especially when it comes to uncovering truths in a foreign setting. The Forgotten City cleverly scatters breadcrumbs and leverages its cycle-based time mechanic to great effect, a masterful display of how words always have impact and characters will react, often strongly, to affectations.
Authenticity and intent matters in these circumstances.
Emblematic of how rewarding it can be are the multiple times I thought a conversation was going nowhere so I stepped aside to search around or chat with other inhabitants then returned only to determine exactly what I needed to proceed where I wanted to go. It was up to me to break the cycle, to figure out what’s a sin under The Golden Rule and prevent people from being their own worst enemies.
An informal yet indicative measure of quality I’ll use is how many “wow” moments a game produces, especially narrative titles with more straightforward mechanics. The Forgotten City offered a few of those and then some, flooring me with its exquisite craft and impressing me with its constant ingenuity.
Title: The Forgotten City
Release Date: July 28th, 2021
Developer: Modern Storyteller
Publisher: Dear Villager
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC. (Nintendo Switch in Q3 2021.)
Recommendation: Highly recommended, even for those that aren’t history buffs, mythology aficionados or narrative game lovers. Especially so for folks that are. Everyone should play it, as soon as possible. It’s truly gold.
Sources: Dear Villager, Screenshots from Xbox Series X.