One of the fears I have is death by drowning. My other fear is that of being mauled by a sheep. Luckily there is no chance of the two things happening at the same time. In Narcosis there are no angry sheep to be had, but the possibility of an early watery grave is always on the horizon.
You play a deep-sea diver stranded on the bottom of the ocean floor, with very little light and a few simple tools. It’s like being in an underwater coffin, waiting for the end to come. The game plays like a first person survival horror, whereby it’s all about the atmosphere and the things that appear at the corner of your eyes, rather then a fast action adventure experience.
The story involves an underwater disaster that leaves you as the only survivor looking for answers. You’ll also be after an escape plan back to the surface. Told through flashback and voice over, the narrative takes you across the ocean floor, through weird nightmares, haunting visions and flooded underwater bases. There are other dead divers to discover and through their IDs you can uncover much more of the narrative and mystery they hold. As you progress through the story, things gets weirder and reality begins to distort as your suits starts to break down. The story is very intriguing and one of the strongest parts of the game, as well as being fantastically executed. But how does all this play out?
Slow is the answer to that question.
That’s not a complaint at the game’s speed and resolution, but how accurate Narcosis is at simulating what it would be like at the bottom of the ocean. You move at a snail’s pace – maybe the snails will overtake you, maybe they are mocking you…you get the idea, it’s very slow. There is a brief flashback tutorial to help you settle in, whereby you are in a swimming pool doing some training for the mission. You move forward and back, as well as having a thrust button that propels you forward slightly quicker for a short period of time. On your suit HUD you have a gauge for your thruster power and on the other side you have an oxygen gauge. The oxygen meter runs down as you walk and you use more if a sea creature attacks you… or something very scary happens.
You replenish your oxygen supply by finding loose canisters strewn across the ocean bed or in handy wall displays in the flooded interiors. There are plenty of these dotted around, and I only ran out of oxygen a couple of times throughout my playthrough. There is also the ability to pick up and use flares throughout the journey. These help in lighting the way ahead up, thus avoiding certain drops into abysses or walking into a horde of giant sea spiders.
While mentioning giant sea spiders, it is also worth talking about the combat. You have one attack, which is a very slow swing with a pocketknife. This can take out the smaller creatures like the scary fish, squids or octopuses after about four attacks. The aforementioned sea spider is something you should just avoid, because it will kill you straight away so you need to find a path around them.
But then, Narcosis isn’t really about combat. It’s all about atmosphere and spooky underwater terror, which it does very well – even though the world does start to tire as you make your way through. It has also been designed for VR and that becomes very evident in certain sections, like when you’re hit by the octopus face huggers. I imagine it would be a brilliantly terrifying experience in VR and one I would love to try. For now though it’s good with a standard controller, but the pacing issues and over familiarity of scare tactics start to make the experience a bit average.
What Narcosis does do is a great job of making the underwater world look dark, atmospheric and frightening. There is barely enough light to see a few yards in front, whilst shadows ensure creatures lurk around every corner. The HUD display is well executed, as well as the menus and photos of your dead colleagues. The sequences when the game gets strange and all weird, especially a dream section in a field of poppies, are highly stunning and effective, especially after spending so much time deep in the water.
The soundtrack is again immersive, oppressive and unforgiving. Low bass rumblings and static hisses make you feel like your room is being crushed by sound. This is keeping in line with everything else Narcosis brings and the composer has done an excellent job. Just don’t leave it on pause for too long or you’ll go mad. The voice over work is excellent and so is the writing. The actors do a brilliant job of underplaying the drama, and some of the lines of dialogue are amazingly profound about the survival situation the story is set in.
Narcosis is a solid game with a great premise, some excellent voice acting and a great story. The problems I have are with the central premise, which is the pacing of being underwater, and the unwieldy aspects, which this evokes. Getting caught on snags, trying to get around sea snakes, and falling down crevices are just some of the things I never want to experience again in a game. But if you want to try something different and are looking for a great premise, then take a deep breath and dive on in.