The Forgotten City turns a Skyrim mod into an intricate time-loop mystery

The original adage that history repeats itself was not, as far as I know, about a Groundhog Day-style time loop. However, The Forgotten City takes the cycle of history more literally than most. Over the course of several permutations of the same day, the game weaves an intricately plotted mystery that doubles as a meditation on the repeating nature of civilizations.

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It’s easy to view the very existence of The Forgotten City as its own time loop of sorts. The game was originally released in 2016 as a mod for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Developers at the studio Modern Storyteller then worked for five years to ultimately release The Forgotten City, again, this time as a complete stand-alone title. Fortunately, their second release seems to have benefited from this unorthodox development cycle: The Forgotten City is smart, polished, and surprising.

The game wastes little time explaining the central mystery. You’re trapped in an ancient, cavernous Roman city with a supernatural law that forbids sin. When a sin is committed (and it will be committed), everyone in the city is turned to gold— everyone except you, that is! You get to restart the day with all of your current knowledge and inventory in an attempt to catch that pesky sinner and avoid a golden apocalypse.

Image: Modern Storyteller

In practical terms, this means you’ll have to talk to each of the city’s two dozen residents, doing errands and learning gossip until you can piece together everyone’s potential motivations for sinning. The mechanics for talking to each character aren’t particularly involved, but thankfully, the conversations themselves (as well as the voice actors) are excellent. Characters are distinctly written with backstories and life experiences directly tied to their place in Roman society. Issues of religion, sexuality, and ethics are frequently discussed in a way that feels simultaneously modern and historically appropriate. One plot line has a patient in desperate need of life-saving medicine, but the only medicine in the city is sold by a price-gouging merchant. Is that a sin? Or is it just good business?

Over the course of the game, the city becomes an intricate puzzle box. Solutions to one quest may provide shortcuts to solving others or even recontextualize entire characters. Although each plot line repeats as the game’s timeline loops, clever design touches successfully avert tedium. After spending most of one day negotiating for that life-saving medicine, I was delighted to learn that on the next loop, I could tell a helpful NPC how to do the same thing, freeing up my time to pursue other leads. The result is that, even though the series of events is identical each day, I spent little time repeating tasks. The Forgotten City is, in fact, wonderfully varied; surprisingly lengthy quests with unique gameplay mechanics continue to reveal themselves far into the game. A standout sequence even diverges into genuine horror, upending my ideas about the game’s omnipresent golden statues.

This is all bolstered by strong art direction and technical design. Although the soundtrack and some instances of stiff character animation remind me that this was once a Skyrim mod, environments are nicely detailed, strikingly lit, and filled with era-appropriate pieces of clutter. If you want, you can even discuss the intricacies of Roman architecture with one of the NPCs and then observe those same intricacies throughout the city. The attention to historical accuracy is enthralling. I learned several things about real-life history during my playthrough, and not all were Roman-centric.

Unlike other recent time-loop games, The Forgotten City rarely plays coy with its plot progression. Menus will often directly tell you how to accomplish your goals. Quests are clearly marked and point you toward the relevant characters. Even the city itself will “whisper” solutions to puzzles (although these hints can be turned off if you want). Truthfully, I appreciated the help; the joy I found in the game was piecing together all the disparate elements of the city, not solving any individual puzzle.

Image: Modern Storyteller

The game also isn’t shy about the details of its endgame. I reached an ending about 5 hours in, but the game told me that this was only 1 out of 4 possible conclusions. Reaching the true finale (literally titled “The Canon Ending”) took several more hours, but this ended up being my favorite chunk of the whole experience. Major revelations about the nature of the city— and the cyclical nature of history itself— are saved for this final act of the game. Without this stretch, I don’t think I would have understood what the game was doing with its historical setting and interrogation of cultural customs. Suffice it to say: if you have not seen “The Canon Ending,” you have not really completed The Forgotten City.

Unlike many games with time loops, The Forgotten City isn’t so concerned with the life cycles of individuals. Instead, as hinted at by its Roman setting, the loop it focuses on is that of civilizations. The Roman empire rose and fell, as did countless civilizations before, and countless more after. But is history really doomed to repeat itself? Maybe, says the game. Or, with enough knowledge and enough effort, maybe that pattern isn’t as inevitable as it seems.

The Forgotten City was released on July 28 on Windows PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Modern Storyteller. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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