What is it? A first-person time-loop mystery set in an ancient Roman city where a single sin kills everyone
Expect to pay: $25/£20
Developer: Modern Storyteller
Publisher: Dear Villagers
Reviewed on: RTX 2080, Intel i7-9700K , 16GB RAM
Link: Official site (opens in new tab)
Most games, technically, are in the time-loop genre. You can reload saves to try again, you can kill and die without consequence, and you can press reset on the world, starting over armed with the knowledge of events that haven't happened yet. Every day can be Groundhog Day.
The Forgotten City is literally a time-loop game, and it makes excellent use of that magical reset button. You begin the adventure in the present day, stumbling into some ancient Roman ruins filled with golden human statues before being whisked back in time through a portal. You arrive in the same Roman city, but now it's pristine and all those statues are living people. What happened to them? Why were they turned into gold? Is the city truly a paradise outside of time, or is it more like a prison? How can you return to your own time? And why is an ancient Roman city filled with ziplines?
The answers to those questions (except the zipline one, that's just a convenience so you can travel around quickly) require lots of conversations with the citizens, who are almost without fail well-crafted characters, many with troubling secrets and interesting stories to tell. And the time-loop is your best weapon, eventually transforming you from a confused newcomer to a nearly omniscient detective in a city full of suspects. It's a satisfying way to investigate, rewinding the clock each day to meet the same people and witness the same events, only with new eyes and new information.
As with all utopias, there's a dark catch to the reason the city feels so pleasant and peaceful. If anyone in the city (including you) commits a sin like stealing or killing, the ground rumbles and people begin turning into gold statues. You must race back to the portal, which resets the day, giving you a chance to do things differently or maybe try out a completely new avenue of investigation.
The Forgotten City began as a mod for Skyrim before being recreated in the Unreal Engine. But its Skyrim roots are still heavily apparent in the looks and animation of the characters and a similar dialogue system. Where it outdoes Skyrim is in those conversations, which are well-written and wonderfully performed. The dialogue feels natural and genuine despite the fantastical setting of an ancient city trapped in time.
In Skyrim (and quite honestly, most games) I tend to get impatient and skip through conversations, but here I'm happy to listen to everyone, and not just because uncovering the city's dark secrets depends on it. Maybe the act of not clicking the mouse button to skip to the next line doesn't sound like the biggest compliment I can give, but it sorta is.
The smaller mysteries and sidequests are especially fun to solve. A woman has been poisoned to death, but how could that be possible when murder is a sin that should bring on the end of the city? Trust me, I know: the first thing I did when I got my hands on a bow was shoot an arrow directly into someone's head, and the world immediately began to end.
So how did someone manage a murder without statue-geddon happening? It took a few time loops to save her from dying, and one or two more to figure out how to save her every single day without having to do it myself. The Forgotten City is about repeating things over and over, but it does a lot to make sure those things don't become irritating chores.
It's also enjoyable to slowly discover the connections between the people of the city, even if you don't personally witness their interactions. Another side quest involved tracking down someone who was harassing a local shopkeeper with nasty notes and graffiti (apparently, treating people like utter shit isn't a world-ending sin). I got a lead on someone, which led me to another lead, which led me to—whoops, that third lead just got buried under a pile of rubble. I reset the day, make sure the person I need to talk to doesn't get crushed into pulp by rocks, and eventually track down the harasser. He freely admits leaving the notes simply because I'd helped him out in an earlier side quest. Helping someone with a problem often leads to a breakthrough when trying to help someone else with a problem.
You not only possess your memories of the day, you also keep the physical items you collect between restarts. Find a key to a locked door and you'll never have to go back and retrieve it again. Collect some gold, and it'll still be in your pockets when you come back through the portal. Like the ziplines, these are shortcuts to make repeating the same day over and over a bit more convenient so you can quickly dive back into whatever it was you were doing when the ground began to shake.
Discovering your own loopholes in the sin system is equally enjoyable. Maybe I can't kill someone without all hell breaking loose, but there are ways to trick people into dying that slowly become apparent when you've spent a little time in the city—particularly if you've become aware of an extremely dangerous place to stand because you saw someone else get crushed to a pulp a few resets ago.
And stealing isn't permitted, but if someone else commits a sin and triggers the apocalypse, is there really any harm in me looting a few chests of gold while I'm scampering back to the portal? Probably not! It's a free sin! It certainly doesn't hurt that I spent the money I stole to buy an overly-expensive item from the same guy I stole the money from. And he was none the wiser, thanks to the ever useful time-loop.
Trial and terror
The Forgotten City isn't all walking, talking, and listening. There is a bit of combat—you can even bring a gun with you from the future. And that's actually kind of a shame. A sequence where I had to skulk through a ruined palace filled with creepy animated statues, dispatching them with a magic bow, went on much, much longer than necessary. It was chilling at first, but those weird statues running towards me over and over quickly got repetitive.
Climbing and jumping aren't especially smooth in The Forgotten City, something I didn't really notice during hours of peaceful exploration but that became apparent during my action-packed palace crawl. That entire section of the game felt like it was keeping me from what I wanted to be doing: walking, talking, and listening to the stories of interesting people.
Thankfully, most of the 10-12 hours it takes to reach the ending of The Forgotten City (and there are four endings, so you can take even more time if you wish) can be spent doing just that: soaking up the finer details of a beautiful and mysterious city, and slowly getting to know a collection of interesting, well-acted characters. If you have to relive a single day over and over again, Groundhog Day-like, this is a good one.