Alex enjoys games with rich storytelling and bold character arcs that inspire his own pursuits in narrative design. He also can be found on Twitch regularly playing games till late!
Xbox One, PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch, PS5, Xbox Series X
July 28, 2021
For a game that was once a mere Skyrim mod, The Forgotten City manages to spin gold with a new loop on a 2000-year-old tale. It’s a mystery adventure that pulls the player into a time loop and demands you discover the truth behind its many threads. With a lively cast and well-written script, it’s not hard to see why the mod won a Writers Guild Award back in 2017. Now released as a standalone product and borrowing the best parts from its predecessor, the small Melbourne development team at Modern Storyteller have spent the past 4 years making a game that’s more immersive than ever. They’ve coloured between the lines and brought an already lively mod to life as its very own game. So get ready for a trip back, just don’t get stuck in the past!
As far as time loop games go, The Forgotten City knows exactly how to set the clock. For most of the game, players have the freedom to manipulate the loop in a multitude of ways, testing what outcomes their actions cause. It’s quite an in-depth operation. Many of the stories you wade into while in the loop require you to delicately tiptoe around something known as the ‘Golden Rule’. It’s the one thing holding the loop hostage because if anyone sins, they shall break the Golden Rule, and every resident of the loop shall suffer. The committing of a sin is judged by a presence watching over everyone’s actions, waiting for them to take it that step too far. The game’s core mystery sets you on the path to uncover who breaks the Golden Rule in the loop as well as who bestowed such a devastating curse on the city. Your character is led to believe that by solving this enigma, they’ll be able to leave the loop.
The game begins with a short prologue section where you decide your character’s gender, skin colour and backstory from the list of presets. All you know at this point is that you were swept up in a river and rescued by someone who happened to be on the shore downstream. Each of the backstories adds something to your playthroughs, such as the fugitive role that lets you run faster or the mercenary role that starts you off with a gun with finite ammo. I focused on both these roles, though looking back at the story, I think choosing the archaeologist backstory may have added some interesting historical insight into my time in the loop. There’s also an amnesiac backstory that affords the player a recent head trauma that increases your health in the game by 50% which allows for a slightly easier experience. The Fugitive role and amnesiac are both great options for players who need that little bit more help getting through the game.
While the preset backstories in The Forgotten City may seem limiting to the player on the surface, it’s worth noting that the focus of the game is solving the mystery. The character the player inhabits is just their vessel in this world. Personally, choosing the mercenary class in my first playthrough was more of a reflex than a choice. Having a gun seemed like a necessary thing to take 2000 years into the past despite the lack of ammo. I ended up not using a single shot – the loop had me so invested I forgot the gun even existed. In my second playthrough, I decided on the fugitive role just so I could cover ground quickly and get out of dodge when the Golden Rule was broken in the loop.
When you enter the city, it immediately pulls you in, just asking to be explored. Despite the map being fairly compact, it allows the player to quickly understand the general layout of the city. It’s cleverly designed to look larger, with cliffs adding in gaps that hollow out the world below the city and trick the wandering eye. For a game with a premise so expansive, it feels appropriately big enough. There was never a time when I was overwhelmed or fatigued by the exploration side of the game. For the most part, it feels like you’re just wandering through an unfamiliar place and heading towards whatever piques your interest when you aren’t tracking a quest marker. It felt really rewarding when exploration led to the discovery of a new character, particularly when that person was the next piece in the mystery to solve.
The game feels like a homage to Bethesda’s Skyrim with how it approaches individual character interactions. The difference with The Forgotten City is that it trades the expanse of a larger RPG for a more focused experience. As you delve deeper into the game, you become aware of many small character details that are in fact relevant to the major mystery of The Forgotten City despite playing a small role in the grand scheme of the actual loop. With a game like this, zooming in on what may have just been one quest in other RPGs like Skyrim or The Witcher 3 allows it to present depth those games can only dream of. It allows those smaller brush strokes to link between the major plot points with ease that makes each quest in the loop an interesting pursuit.
In that first run of the loop, learning the ways of the city takes some getting used to. Most of the characters have an arc that requires some trial and error to understand how they play into the larger mystery. While it is intriguing to passively approach the world and let the loop run on its own, fiddling with the story after you know how it will unfold is rather intoxicating. Who would’ve thought being able to take control of someone else’s life in a time loop after lockdown would be so satisfying? Sure, there were times when choosing the worst option for a quest in the game felt rather too easy, but under the guise of researching the loop you have so much freedom to poke and push the narrative as you see fit.
The game also uses a character called Galerius as a go-between to do the quests you’ve successfully completed before in previous loops. After you tell him what to do, you’re free to follow him around the city as he does as instructed. He has interactions with each and every person you tell him to and it adds yet another layer of liveliness to the game. It’s definitely a time loop game that is considerate of the player, understanding that repeating quests would be tiresome even at this calibre.
What did surprise me about the game is the inclusion of combat. It wasn’t much, though several quests do pit the player against gold foes who are rather fun to fight with the game’s gold bow. While the combat doesn’t feel particularly native to a mystery game like this, it did bring joy to fire golden arrows into the enemies and watch them turn to gold again. It even works on the residents of the loop, though bear in mind that using it will break the Golden Rule. I found that out the hard way when I was messing about and managed to headshot Desius in the marketplace. He deserved it anyway.
I would’ve liked to see the golden bow used in the game more, even outside of combat it’s a lot of fun to play with and could’ve seen more unique methods of use. The only quests in the game it’s really relevant to are the ones involving the enemies which don’t really show up enough to warrant such an awesome weapon, but I am really glad the game lets me use it.
What actually does make up the majority of the gameplay in The Forgotten City is talking to the characters. It’s here where the game feels most in its element. It’s easy to tell why the mod is so highly regarded for its narrative, the dialogue feels very organic. In every loop when I came across Fabia in her bakery after rescuing her from her fate, I got a nice reminder of the players’ power in this game. It also helps that the game is fully voice acted, making the world feel so much more lived-in and bringing the game’s writing to life.
The Forgotten City is very careful to avoid players using the dialogue as an easy way through on fresh playthroughs which works to its benefit because it makes the player experience the loop through the same eyes as their character. On each of my playthroughs, in the first loop, it did become a regular occurrence to watch a character die in a very preventable way which was agonizing but it stays true to the character in a respectable way. Once you make it to the second loop you’re also able to avert the crisis really easily and use it as a way to solve another quest with ease. In the end, it’s quite satisfying.
One quest in the game centres on a gay character named Vergil who’s being targeted by one of the other residents in the city for his sexuality. He asks you to find the culprit but he doesn’t want them punished, instead, he just wants you to tell them to stop. This quest ends up linking to another quest that links to another quest much like a daisy chain. In order to help him, you have to satisfy the other goals in those quests before you can help here. I won’t spoil how Vergil’s quest ends, though I was quite surprised at how the culprit of the homophobic bullying explained away his actions.
This quest feels weirdly performative when it’s completed and I was even more surprised by what takes place in the epilogue for the good ending of the game with Vergil’s story. It wasn’t upsetting, but it feels like there’s more nuance necessary that ironically a game 2000 years in the past needed more time to explore.
Other quests toss the idea of sin into the mix more often than not, with many solutions involving theft of denarius (the game’s currency) or similarly an item that you can use when the loop resets after your crime. What constitutes a sin becomes a common question when character interactions don’t go quite how one hoped they might, but when the loop resets you get to roll the dice again and see where they land. Often characters aren’t sure what will break the Golden Rule since it’s never explicitly told to them, aside from the obvious no murder and theft. It’s eventually proven that murder is possible so long as it’s not directly done by someone’s hand. If a crumbling shrine falls on someone after being told to enter, the Golden Rule doesn’t see it.
Despite there being a few minor hints during the story, I was quite surprised by how the good ending caps the story. The game transcends itself, connecting to a form of higher storytelling that is equal parts bizarre and disarming. It awakened a feeling I was so used to getting in Skyrim when I first played it on the Xbox 360. The story feels as though I’m experiencing it for the first time and I’m in awe of what’s happening but I’m also cautious as to what might happen next as it’s unpredictable and therefore feels quite honest. In that last section of the game after the mystery is solved, the resolution gave me closure on characters I’d seen live the same day over and over so many times.
If your eyes gleam at the very suggestion of golden mystery, then this one’s for you. Considering The Forgotten City was once a mod, it paints a picture worthy of study and play, rewarding both new and returning players equally with how far it’s come. Its characters are lively and well written. For any RPG fans looking for something more manageable than the typical AAA sized games, The Forgotten City is a delightful dalliance.
As far as time loop games go, The Forgotten City has the Midas touch. It’s easy to see just how much care has gone into the story of the game so that it not only pulls the player in, but dares them to test the possible realities. The characters all feel real and they drive the player to find the truth before the Golden Rule is broken and the loop must reset. The developers have been careful to create a narrative that, while repetitive in practice, still keeps the player engaged in the wider narrative of the world through exploration and discovery. Combat in the game remains questionable, but the gold bow is its saving grace. If you’re after a game that will keep you guessing as you move closer to the truth, then The Forgotten City is fittingly worthy of your gold.