The Forgotten City Review

Back in 2015, a story and adventure mod called The Forgotten City was released by Nick Pearce (and a very small team) for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. For most of the Skyrim mod community back then, this mod came out of nowhere and surprised us with one of the most inventive and unique experiences Skyrim players had seen within any mod, and many will agree that it rivaled and even beat the best storylines Bethesda Game Studios put into the base game. The Forgotten City went on to win an Australia Writer's Guild award, something a mod for a video game hadn't done prior in any country, and that's for good reason - the writing both for the dialogue and for the overall story was in many ways highly inventive and unparalleled for a mod.

Now, when successful or really interesting mods for games like this come out, what we often see is that game studios snap these folks up by hiring them and putting them on their AAA game design teams. But instead, the team at indie studio Modern Storyteller went a different route and decided to turn this mod into its own standalone game. Years later we see The Forgotten City, a new first-person mystery/adventure indie game.



The Premise

The game starts off in modern-day Rome with your choice of either a male or female character (you never see your own face - it's first person exclusively) as the protagonist, a mysterious character who has woken up with a bit of short term amnesia after being rescued from drowning in a river. You choose from one of several very short background stories for your character that each give you one small bonus within the game, and are directed by the woman who saved you from the river to look for a guy named Al who just wandered over to some ancient ruin in the forest. 

The ruin seems to be of Roman origin, but as you look for Al, you wind up falling into the ruin, down a shaft and into water. You're now stuck in the Forgotten City and learn of a horrific fate of its inhabitants - some curse has turned them all to gold. You happen upon a portal and, with no other choice now that you're trapped, walk into it and get transported two millennia backwards in time, back to when the city had a small but otherwise thriving population. This is where the story really begins.

The Kind of Game This Really Is

The Forgotten City is largely a first person exploration and adventure game. Your character can move freely and can run, jump, and do a little bit of climbing and scaling of ladders and similar vertical objects, but it's not an action game at heart. There is some action in a couple of sections, but largely the challenge offered here comes by way of talking to characters, helping them through quests, and getting down to the mystery of how the curse began, how it works, and how to either escape or defeat it so that you, and possibly other denizens of The Forgotten City, can get free. If the idea of a first-person game where exploring, digging into conversation trees, and trying to find solutions to some light puzzling sounds awful, stay away - this is not the game for you. And anyone looking for pure action should not look for it here, because the few bits of action included won't be enough on their own to fuel an adrenaline junkie.

The Golden Rule

Now that we have that out of the way, let's talk story. The curse that the denizens of The Forgotten City have to deal with is what they call The Golden Rule, and it goes like this: if even one person in the city commits just one sin, everyone currently in the city will be killed by being turned into gold. To that end, the city is littered with gold statues - people who failed to follow the rule and were turned to gold before the current set of inhabitants arrived. 

The thing is, this time around, something is different. Not only is your character getting flung from 2,000 years in the future into the city, but the Magistrate of the city has learned of an incantation that allows him to re-open the portal that brought your character into the city. If anyone does break The Golden Rule, he will open the portal and your character can duck into it and start that same day over again - and you can do this repeatedly until you've beaten the game.

This means you're stuck in a time loop where, with how events in the game go initially, someone will break the Golden Rule if not at some point during the day (based on quest progress), then it definitely happens at the end of the day, forcing the player to loop back to the start. If you're thinking, "Hey! This is like Groundhog Day the Video Game", there certainly are some parallels to the classic comedy movie, but having some semblance of control over the loop is nice too, and your character gets to keep any items gathered between loops. On top of that, there is a rather helpful gentleman who can be ordered at the start of a loop to run out and quickly re-finish any major quests that have already been completed. This is useful because at least some of the changes to the world that finishing these quests will cause will help if repeated while working on other quests, and this way the game doesn't make players redo this work every loop. 

What Is a Sin?

Quickly you'll learn that the people of The Forgotten City have wound themselves up into many layers of drama, dishonest behavior, and intrigue, and are now teetering on the edge of a number of sins being committed. From a gameplay perspective - and also as debated by your character with several others throughout the game - no one's really quite sure what kind of misdeeds count as a sin, since no one wants to test it lest they incur the curse's wrath. After all, there's no going back if they do cross the line. So what exactly breaks The Golden Rule? Assault? Murder - even if done quietly or made to look like an accident? Suicide? Theft? Lying? Cheating or tricking someone? There are concrete answers to these questions that you'll deduce through the game, and yes, you can break the Golden Rule yourself and incur the wrath of the curse, and you might even want to do this on purpose. 

The Flow

What I like about The Forgotten City's overall structure is that the main quest objectives and "Leads" (some of which will be turned into new parts of the main quest objectives) are very naturally discovered by exploring, talking to people, and finding small secrets. Players can complete these objectives in different orders, although there is a progression in the main quest that gets followed, and there are multiple endings that can be triggered at different points in the story. Finding the "true" ending (it's not really called that but I can't think of a more appropriate name) is something the game will directs you towards as you progress, and it can be completed simply by playing without having to execute some kind of crazy or convoluted set of steps.

With that said, while I was able to complete the game with all endings, I found a couple of leaps in logic where once an objective was not properly pointed to by the quest progress, and another objective was locked entirely behind one character's rather grumpy demeanor and I had to dig at the bottom of a dialogue tree in conversation with an entirely different character to discover why that first character would not budge, and no breadcrumb existed to help me find that thread. It's not a bug, but I believe it should have been structured differently. 

It's an Indie Game

One thing I should point out is that The Forgotten City is an indie game that can be completed in one (rather long) sitting, and its $25 price tag reflects this. The game's been built in the Unreal Engine and has solid visuals, although some characters look a little weird (including the very first one you run into, creating a bit of an iffy first impression) and while the voice acting and writing are excellent, the characters' lip sync animations are pretty basic and do not look realistic. Now, bad lip sync is one of my pet peeves about games, but it's mostly when we see big-budget games, many of which don't even have that much dialogue, getting this wrong. 

I understand that it's an expensive and very time-consuming process to generate accurate lip sync however, so I'll be forgiving about this and other issues with the presentation, since this is an indie game with an appropriate price tag. Overall, what Modern Storyteller offers ranges from acceptable to quite pleasant, but you'll quickly realize that you're not playing a blockbuster game when you get in here. But even then, this game's ambition lies elsewhere, and it continually reminds the player that big-budget studios with eight-figure budgets and hundreds of people don't actually even try to do what The Forgotten City does, not the least because this kind of game won't ever sell the millions of copies required to make blockbuster game development profitable. (The closest I can think of has been some of Obsidian Entertainment's efforts over the last 10-plus years, but even their writing and design have to be stretched over much larger games, so they don't come out quite as deliberate and polished as this.)

One shout out I want to make is to Michael Allen, the composer for this game's original soundtrack - it's an evocative and thought-provoking orchestral score, much in the style of the original mod's soundtrack by Trent Moriarty. If you're in love with game soundtracks, the Steam version of the game does sell the soundtrack as DLC. 

For Fans of the Mod

For those who actually played the Skyrim mod wondering if it's worth picking up this game since it's vaguely the same thing, I'll tell you - it's quite a bit different with a few major story beats the same, but with vastly more dialogue, many new quests, an entirely new cast of characters, and many small elements to add to the experience. The overall high-level goal is the same, but the conversion from the Elder Scrolls mythos to explore Roman, Greek, and even earlier myths and legends makes for an interesting change and is used brilliantly in key conversations that specifically challenge the player's philosophical logic. And I love that I got to say, for basically once ever in a game review, that a video game challenges players philosophically. 

A Triumph for Game Storytelling

What surprises me the most about The Forgotten City is not so much that it was born from a mod, but instead that even though it took several years, it was so successfully converted into a separate game by the same folks that made the mod - and seemingly without any compromises in the original vision. This new game is bigger and more complex, asks even more interesting philosophical questions (and I mean, it asks them directly to the player character, and the writers supplied generally very appropriate responses to give too), and even offers the player that unique time loop mechanic that can and must be used in order to succeed. 

Even with a few bugs I've seen reported (that I didn't run into myself, but I certainly could have) and a couple of what I felt like were moderately annoying issues with the quest layout and logic, The Forgotten City triumphantly proves that even in 2021, a game can not just survive, but thrive off of the strength of its writing and storytelling. I can't help but wholeheartedly recommend this game to anyone who's looking for a unique storytelling adventure. I do wish that major game studios had the guts to be this inventive with stories and characters rather than just showing us things explode, but I'm not sure that will actually happen with the game industry the way it is now. Luckily we have studios like Modern Storyteller here to pick up the slack, and I find myself just brimming with excitement over what they can create next.

9/10

The Forgotten City is out via digital distribution now on PC via Steam, Epic Games Store, or GOG; on Xbox One and Xbox Series S/X; and on PlayStation 4 and 5. A Nintendo Switch port is slated for release later in 2021.