In the world of video games, 2021 will be remembered for one thing: Time-loops. Appropriate for a year where most of us had expected to return to normality after a year during a pandemic, yet even beginning to return to that past normality was met with further lockdowns and setbacks, as if we were stuck in 2020 all over again. In terms of video games, while this year did see lots of delays or the long-awaited announcement of some games still to be made, there were enough long-expected releases and announcements, which made the delays not that effective, at least for me. The reason I will remember this year as the year of time-loops in video games is because there were a lot of games that were about time-loops; from Deathloop and Returnal, to indie hits like 12 Minutes, there was a lot of opportunity to be stuck in a time-loop which you could solve in video games and all of these games have done something interesting with the concept. Deathloop’s time-loop sounds less interesting on its own, but the way Arkane mixed up their own formula is something I’m looking forward to experiencing once it releases on Xbox; the high-praise for the narrative of Returnal is something I was not expecting from an arcadey rogue-like shooter; 12 Minutes I reviewed and did not enjoy that much, but even I have to admit that it is a fascinating game to discuss and think about.
Where does The Forgotten City fit in? Obviously, it is about entering and “solving” a time-loop, but what makes it special or what separates it from the competition? Origins are a big part of it. The Forgotten City was originally a Skyrim mod that was very popular and now has been remade with a different engine, a different setting, and different ideas, by the same developer who originally made the first mod. Furthermore, it is a game that takes place in ancient history, populated by characters from Ancient Rome; a lot of work was put into the props and the city feeling like it was something ripped straight out of Ancient Rome and recreated in the game. In terms of the actual time-loop, The Forgotten City doesn’t really do too much with its time-loop, besides a couple of cool things: Firstly, the way you break the loop is by creating a paradox, which is something that prevents the loop from ever existing in the first place – for example, finding out who created the loop and dealing with that situation will mean that the loop was never required in the first place, thus you won’t be stuck in a loop. Secondly, items you get remain with you, but they are also respawned in the world the next time you loop, because in that time loop you never got it. That last point is irrelevant, I just thought it was cool, much like the loop in the game; irrelevant, but cool.
Having said that, I’m not that bothered by the absence of a compelling use of the time-loop idea; the mysteries and puzzles you need to solve, all feel like they don’t really require the character to time-loop as much as they require a reset, which is what the loop mostly is. Sometimes, the game does require you to remember information, but it is rarely vital to the solution. Mostly, it is an opportunity for the game to showcase its best quality: The writing. The Forgotten City, to my surprise, is a brilliantly written, often funny, story about lots of things that I won’t go into detail because of spoilers. Any problems created by its budget, like facial animation not looking particularly good (even after a complete rehaul of how they were supposed to originally work) or voice acting for minor characters not being that great, I found the story to be fascinating and captivating. There is “side” stuff that made a huge impression on me, like the lead that leads you to the abandoned palace and the ensuing story and revelations that await there. It’s a smart game that respects your intelligence and wants you to engage with it in all philosophical queries and examinations it has, alongside some very effective humor and a mystery that can be very entertaining to solve, although a bit generic. Where the design fails in making the time-loop relevant, the story and scenarios make the time-loop vital to the experience of the game. As an example, The Forgotten City is about your character washing up by a river and being sent to some ruins by the lady who saved you; not long after you’ve found yourself stuck in a time-loop in an ancient Roman city that lives in a “utopia” that has a single rule, called “The Golden Rule”, which forbids sin and threatens all with being turned into gold if that rule is broken. Design-wise, this should be the foundation where cool puzzles are conjured for the player to solve with that one rule at the back of their minds; while it happens just the once, it is never really used. Most of the game is about dialogue choices and some light environmental puzzles, alongside a lot of walking and exploring; one side quest does force you to steal something, but the solution for that quest is not what I had hoped. Lying, for example is not considered a sin, and it never requires inventive or smart use of facts and timing their reveal or any clever ploy to get around sins. Other puzzles are also linear affairs that have you do something to reveal the correct way of doing it and then resetting the loop to do it right again.
Despite all the potential the game has in terms of using the time-loop concept for puzzle-solving and narrative, I still think The Forgotten City is a great game with some of the best writing of the year and a lot of potential left to still be met. It has great moments and memorable situations, and it is one of the most accessible time-loop games since completing the game is not that difficult, with added replayability and challenge for those looking to get all endings and all achievements. I expected something different when I first started playing, but then I loved the writing and the narrative so much, I got all 4 endings, so while I did not get what I expected, I got a very good game nonetheless.