As if spending time deep in the ocean, stuck in a claustrophobic high-tech dive suit dubbed as a “walking coffin” wouldn’t be harrowing enough, imagine if an earthquake was to occur whilst you were doing so. It would be pretty scary wouldn’t it?
Well, that’s the premise of Narcosis, a slow-paced first-person horror game developed by Honor Code, whose collective resume includes titles such as Assassin’s Creed, Metal Gear Solid and Silent Hill.
Stranded at the bottom of the sea due to the devastation that the earthquake has caused, your job as an industrial diver quickly takes a turn for the worse as you begin a desperate struggle for survival. And at times, it’s one that really does induce an unnerving feeling of panic and isolation.
"Narcosis isn’t a game that needs complex mechanics or fast-paced thrills, it’s all about the experience, and thankfully, it’s good enough to carry it."
The depths of the sea are dark and filled with the type of grotesque aquatic creatures that you only ever see in documentaries. And your sanity is at its breaking point, causing you to experience terrifying hallucinations. But the biggest threat of all is that you’re constantly in need of a supply of oxygen, otherwise you’ll become another victim of the earthquake just like so many of your colleagues. Narcosis is grim for all the right reasons then, instilling every minute you play with a sense of dread and urgency that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
It’s understandable, what with you stuck underwater in a heavy suit, that the gameplay is slow and simple. Narcosis isn’t a game that needs complex mechanics or fast-paced thrills though, it’s all about the experience, and thankfully, it’s good enough to carry it.
When traversing the sea bed, Narcosis is not much more than a walking simulator, but the jaw-dropping scenery and fear of the unknown will hold your full attention. Then, upon venturing inside one of the numerous structures you’ll encounter, it’s more of an action-adventure, with you having to negotiate platforms via the help of your handy thrusters and find switches and key cards to re-enable systems and unlock doors. It’s a combination that works well, switching up the pace frequently whilst providing a welcome change of scenery. The controls can take some getting used to though, with the left stick rotating your suit rather than strafing and the right stick independently moving your head.
Dealing with the hostile sea creatures you encounter also adds some variety to Narcosis’ gameplay. Squid will squirt ink in an effort to obscure your vision before attaching themselves to your visor to try and compromise it, while anglerfish won’t think twice about charging at you with force. Both can be dispatched with some well-timed swings of your knife, though. Giant spider crabs, on the other hand, are best just avoided altogether - partly because they’re freaky, but mainly because they’re rock hard. Flares can also be used to alarm any potential attackers before they spot you, giving you the chance to pass by unnoticed. In fact, it’s a tactic that’s very effective when you bring your speed-boosting thrusters into play.
"As horror games go, Narcosis is a triumph, managing to get under your skin and stay there long after you’ve put the pad down."
One of Narcosis’ best touches is that its narrative takes the form of a radio interview, with a candid exchange of dialogue complementing moments of exploration. It works wonderfully, giving weight to your character's actions whilst drawing you in with a personal account of the earthquake and the events that followed that feels entirely believable. It successfully throws a curveball that I totally didn’t expect at its climax too, which earns it considerable kudos in my book.
With a running time of around four hours, Narcosis doesn’t offer the most bang for your buck, but it does offer a unique experience that grabs you and doesn't let go until the very end. Instead of relying on jump scares, it masterfully blends strong audio-visual design with a credible narrative that work together to create a thick and suitably oppressive atmosphere. Whilst the gameplay, though basic, is involving enough to keep you engaged and see things through despite a couple of minor slip-ups. As horror games go, Narcosis is a triumph, managing to get under your skin and stay there long after you’ve put the pad down.