The Forgotten City review: sliding into your diems

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T he genesis of The Forgotten City can be traced back to the day a stranger decided to punch its writer and creator, Nick Pearce, in the face. This unprovoked attack led him, then a tech lawyer, to pen his first short story. From there, he began to put together the tale that would become this game, a thrilling time-loop mystery that was originally created within the world of 2011’s fantasy epic The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. When the mod was released in 2015, it racked up more than 3m downloads and netting Pearce an Australian Writers’ Guild award.

Six years on, The Forgotten City has been rebuilt, transplanted from Skyrim’s Nordic fantasy setting to ancient Rome, and expanded to a complete, albeit rather concise, game. After waking up on a riverbank in the present, you’re catapulted back 2,000 years to a city cut off from the rest of Roman society. Its 23 residents ostensibly live in harmony: the community exists under the yoke of a curse, The Golden Rule, that means if any one citizen commits a sin, everybody meets a gruesome death. Someone is about to break this rule, and you are tasked with discovering the culprit before everyone pays the price.

Where the narrative goes from here is best discovered for yourself, but it’s complex and twisty, a compelling blend of mysticism, morality and good, old-fashioned Roman skulduggery. If a resident breaks the Golden Rule or you break it yourself, be it for theft or murder, you whoosh back in time to begin the day again – but this time you’re forearmed with the knowledge of what’s going to happen, which is enormous fun. Short of the money to bribe someone into doing what you want? Then scam that same person out of the money you need, reset the day, then use their own money to bribe them.

The game is full of smart choices, such as zip-lines that make traversing the city quick and easy, that keep the time-loops from becoming tiresome. It is only towards the end that ennui begins to creep in, and even then, watching events you set into motion fall into place is still supremely gratifying. Despite the inclusion of the odd weapon, this is very chat-heavy and action-light. Most of your time will be spent pottering along the streets of the beautiful, compact city, getting to know what makes its residents tick and following where the leads take you. The quality of writing and voice-work makes sticking your conk into each individual’s business a joy, despite facial animations that occasionally suggest the Botox industry was alive and well in ancient Rome.

There are a few technical hiccups that are to be expected (and forgiven) of a game produced primarily by three people. Textures have a habit of popping in, or in some instances not loading at all, and it’s easy to get stuck behind an innocuous piece of scenery, though I reached the end credits without a proper crash or hard reset. Despite that, The Forgotten City is a tremendous achievement, a labyrinthine little sandbox packed with interpersonal mysteries – some ghoulish, others dorkishly domestic – that unravel further and further with each pass. For me, the moment that it got its hooks into me was when I used my foreknowledge of an impending accident to ensure that an assassin met an unfortunate end without my having to raise a finger. After that I was sunk, and the credits arrived too soon. Tempus fugit, indeed.

  • The Forgotten City is out now, £24.99-£34.99.

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