The Forgotten City review: A mystery well worth solving

(Pocket-lint) - There's nothing like a good mystery - and The Forgotten City's core conundrum is so satisfying to unravel that it powered the experience's journey from a popular Skyrim mod to this, a full release of the game with its lore ported over to ancient Rome. It's got one of the most enjoyable in-game stories we've explored in ages, so read on to find out even more about why we rate it so highly.

Trapped in time

The Forgotten City begins with you waking up beside a river, greeted by a friendly stranger who explains that she found you near the ancient ruins a stretch of your legs away. When you go off to explore them at her request, searching for another lost friend, things get timey-wimey.

You're thrust back into the Roman Empire, finding a lost city full of characters who are similarly confused about how they ended up there, and instructed by the local Magistrate to find out what's going on. The one constant is something called The Golden Rule, an ultimatum that's got everyone living on edge, threatened with total eradication if any one of them commits a sin at any time. Gilded gold statues made out of previous inhabitants who fell foul of the rule seem to confirm its existence, but not everyone is convinced.

You have the luxury of a timeloop to save you in the event that a sin does take place, whether commited by you or someone else, but your core goal is to break that loop and escape from the city, ideally after actually working out what the heck's going on.

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Each time you loop back, everyone around you forgets who you are, letting you work some details out then cut to the chase next time you meet them, and it sets up your problem-solving nicely, with a particular shortcut being that anything you pick up is persistent. So, if you find a key ingredient that someone needs to make a cure for another character, you don't have to worry about finding it again on each run.

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A gallery of faces

The real pleasure of The Forgotten City is two-pronged. You'll spend a lot of your time chatting to strangers, figuring them out and helping them with problems they've got.

Some of the time, you'll make a mistep in conversation and piss them off, abandoning them until your next loop. Other times, you'll make a breakthrough that helps you untie a few more leads with other people, and it all comes together into a nice web of objectives. As each day progresses, characters move around and chat to each other, so sometimes simply following someone around might uncover details you didn't know you were missing.

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At times it can feel a bit like participating in some immersive theatre, or something like a Secret Cinema show, as actors move around on schedules, and you just try to be in the right place at the right time.

Refreshingly, though, this is paired with real freedom to follow leads as you like. Aside from those excellent conversations, you can take another approach and just run around every nook and cranny searching out clues. You're more than welcome to take this approach, but the lengthy chats are what wowed us most about The Forgotten City.

Either way, though, you'll eventually end up having to find a bow and arrow for a few reasons, and the limited combat it brings with it is pedestrian but thankfully not long-lasting.

Ancient history

For a game produced by a tiny team with a background in modding, The Forgotten City also looks really pretty most of the time - its vignette of ancient Rome looks delightful, and there are loads of interesting historical tidbits to be found if you root them out.

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Character models in particular look great, if occasionally glassy-eyed, and their voice acting is a credit to the casting team. There's a range of character types, and their reactions to your prompts feel largely human and convincing, even once you've talked to them a number of times. It won't take you long to develop a few more helpful favourites, and by the time you wind the game up (hopefully having pushed through to the more involved final ending, which isn't too hard to achieve), you'll get some nice payoff with those you've come to know.

There's also a nice soundtrack to keep you in the right mood, and it all comes together in a way that really impressed us - if anything, we suspect that the game's beginnings as a mod, and its correspondingly modest scope, might be its greatest asset.

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After all, it only takes a handful of hours to explore it fully and watch more than one of its potential endings, and the tales you can ultimately uncover aren't too confusingly labyrinthine, for all that they pack really cool revelations and visual flair in by the end. Frankly, here's hoping more story-based games reel themselves back in to this sort of more realistic playtime target.

Verdict

The Forgotten City is really delightful if you're in the mood for a bit of a mystery - its world is ripe for exploration but contained enough to feel hand-designed and easy to tackle. There's a great cast of well-acted and convincingly written characters whose motivations you'll uncover, and some fun twists to experience.

It's far from AAA in execution, but all the stronger for it really, and we can only hope that its console release entices more and more players to see whether they can unravel the riddle it poses. Writing by Max Freeman-Mills. Editing by Mike Lowe.

Originally published on 11 September 2021.