Marisha Pessl, a hugely underrated actress who starred in the horror movie “Night Film”, once uttered an intriguing line about true horror and despair – “Just when you think you’ve hit rock bottom, you realize you’re standing on another trapdoor”. She could have been talking about playing the latest horror title to arrive on Xbox One, that of Horror of the Deep, whereby your sole purpose is to head deep underground, working through dungeon, after dungeon after dungeon. Why? Well it’s unclear why you are making that journey; all you need to know is that you are. Does it give you a feeling of dread or a sense of boredom?
Some games start life as being designed as the perfect VR experience, before eventually getting ported over to console. Whenever this happens though I always feel that something gets lost in translation – that is the case here with Horror of the Deep. I imagine this experience in VR would be amazing, as the intended game design seems to fit perfectly. Without it, it’s all just a bit generic.
Horror of the Deep itself is a first-person immersive horror experience, much like games like The Park or the Amnesia series. This one though puts a strong emphasis on exploration and survival across the whole experience, rather than dropping in combat or intense puzzle-solving moments. From the start, there are no instructions – nor any lengthy cutscenes to inform you where you are. There are no tutorials or control guides detailing what buttons you need to press. You haven’t even any idea who you are or why you are moving downwards. You just… are.
And this is how things carry on. Your job is to descend into the labyrinth of tunnels, ancient architecture and pathways. You are always moving forwards, always avoiding creatures and traps and always getting lost. You might find notes along the way mind, with these giving you a hint of a story that reads like something from Dante’s Inferno. At no point though is there anything that you can firmly grasp onto.
Working as a first person adventure, the lack of guidance meant it took me an age to really work out what was going on. With a lack of tutorial or menu enabling you to look at controls in order to understand the control scheme, it’s tricky. As it turns out, there is an action button that lets you open doors, grab items or knock switches – with this coming across pretty straightforwardly in the shape of a hand. But it took me longer than I care to imagine to uncover the jump and run options. Thankfully, in Horror of the Deep the areas you are in come across as simple affairs, especially in the early stages where you are just left to traverse through the level from the front entrance to exit.
Soon though you might find yourself facing a locked door – usually one that needs multiple keys – and this ensures you need to search the level for said keys. The issue is, they appear in random places in each playthrough. You also might have to search for levers to open portcullises. And then there are the strange creatures that are found patrolling the levels, allowing a bit of stealth to come to the fore as you learn their loops. The creatures range from disturbing, weeping child-like wraiths crawling along the ground, to big minotaur-like beasts who will happily chase you if you dare stumble upon their path.
The gameplay is fine and it never taxes the brain too much throughout the 2-hour running time. The later levels do get tricky though and it’s so easy to get lost through the dark maze-like structures that Horror of the Deep excels at creating. There is a problem though, and I personally found the later levels especially are brought down by a lack of savable checkpoints. When you die in Horror of the Deep, you have to start the whole level again, from the beginning. After a while, it has to be said that this becomes very annoying.
The visuals do look good at times though, but in other moments the whole damn thing comes across as hugely generic and a bit too black. There are a few moments when you look up and see that you’re in some vast area with amazing giant structures and daunting perspectives that are so well designed, but this doesn’t happen anywhere near enough. The creatures that inhabit the dungeons are decent too, but again they don’t come across as the best when you get close up. Thankfully, the sound design is rather excellent, particularly when it comes to the effects created by the development team. With doors creaking and chains rattling, a sense of audio terror is created throughout. There is a good soundtrack that works nicely with the gameplay and the tone of the experience as a whole.
Horror of the Deep on Xbox One provides a smattering of short gameplay that puts you in a strange dark world, refusing to hold your hand at any point. The sense of exploration, mystery and terror around every corner is served well here, and the game is good at taking you on a journey through an underground hell. It does unfortunately lack a solid story and any form of reason to why you are playing it. While the lack of save points and checkpoints are annoying, it is in the latter levels which this will frustrate. That said, it’s cheap, and a very quick way to earn those all-important achievements, which in turn means that if you’re looking for a short, sharp descent into the darkness then you should well go searching for The Horror of the Deep.