Platforms: PC, HTC Vive (Reviewed), Oculus Rift, Xbox One
You’re alone in the blackness of the deep, far from anyone or anything that’s familiar.
You hear the insistent beeping of your oxygen tank as you suck down the last bit of air. You’re panicking, you’re hallucinating, you’re trying desperately to figure out how to get more, but you’re too late...and you die gasping.
Sounds fun right? This more or less encapsulates the vibe of Narcosis, the debut game from Honor Code. It’s not so much survival horror, though there are jump scares and moments of terror, as it is straight-up survival.
You’re a man in a walking coffin, an underwater suit that severely limits your mobility, that keeps you safe from everything but yourself. The entire game takes place beneath the ocean and in your mind, and the sense of oppression and isolation in this very alien environment is what really sets Narcosis apart in a sea of first-person adventures.
This game, more than almost any other I’ve played, relies on atmosphere and attention to detail to keep you engaged. The excellent story (more on that in a bit), is simple, and the run time of the game is quite short at four hours. But this sense of loneliness and dread you get as you slowly explore the damaged and mostly abandoned Compass station at the bottom of the ocean is immensely compelling.
I was lucky enough to play with the HTC Vive, and if possible I highly recommend you do the same. It’s still an interesting game without the extra immersion, but playing with the Vive made the ocean come alive, and while it can be very beautiful, it’s also terrifying.
The first time I saw an enormous spider grab emerge from a cave I shrieked, and I am now terrified of crabs.
I’ve never been to the bottom of the ocean floor (as far as I know) but I’d imagine it would feel something like this. Oppressive isolation, darkness that hides potentially hostile animal life, and an overwhelming sense of foreboding that make for a stressful but memorable VR experience.
The story starts off pretty straightforward. Underwater base, there’s an earthquake, you’re screwed. Standard video game stuff.
But as you continue to explore and the pressure, both physical and metaphorical, begin to build, things start to get interesting. In an intriguing combination of hallucinations brought on by isolation, oxygen deprivation, and actual events, you become increasingly unaware of what’s real and what’s a product of your unravelling mind.
There is occasional narration, and the somber reflections of the unnamed narrator as he remembers the terror and dread he feels add an empathetic dimension that I quickly came to appreciate. These miniature philosophical treatises on the nature of loneliness and fear are really nicely done, and the voice acting, though rare, is exemplary throughout.
I don’t want to dive into too much detail as I’d hate to spoil a good narrative that's full of surprises, but it’s a really wonderfully told story. What’s here in both audio and text is remarkably well written.
Sound design is all around stellar, and though the reliance on tense music occasionally felt grating instead of frightening, the sounds of the ocean and the lonely research outpost are suitably captivating.
It’s a shame then, that the gameplay isn’t quite as fun as the exceptional atmosphere deserves.
Limitations of movement in VR aside, there are some issues with collision detection. You can use a limited booster to “jump” through the water, and though I picked it up quickly, there are some simple platforming elements that are more frustrating than fun due to the limitations of the control scheme. Playing with a keyboard and mouse mitigates this frustration a little, but it doesn’t make the simple jumping puzzles any more interesting.
Speaking of simple, the puzzles in this game are in short supply, and quite easy. The only real standout is a very bizarre hallucination toward the end that has you looking for numbers in the oddest of places.
Combat too, if you can call it that, is very basic. Occasionally you’ll be attacked by a squid, or a horrible underwater creature, and you simply tap a button to stab it until it dies. This depletes oxygen, as any time the protagonist is stressed out he breathes heavily. The combat encounters are initially jump scare worthy, but quickly wear thin, and by the fifth squid it feels like it’s breaking the spell of immersion.
Oxygen is essentially your life, and it is always draining. This stressful mechanic is at the heart of Narcosis, and is a large part of where the tension comes from. The palpable relief you feel when you find an oxygen tank refill when you’re getting low is thrilling.
You can also collect a limited supply of flares in addition to oxygen tanks. I didn’t find them all that useful as you have a flashlight, but seeing the burning orange arcing into the darkest depths of the ocean to reveal the strange creatures that live there can be both fascinating and disturbing.
That’s essentially it as far as gameplay goes; explore, figure out where to go, solve a simple puzzle here and there, stab some local wildlife, curl up into a ball and cry whenever you see a horrible spider crab or a particularly mangled corpse, and survive.
It sounds simple, and it is, but sometimes the most effective experiences have their basis in simple mechanics. Such is the case here.
I played the entire game in VR, but I also did a test run using a standard display and a keyboard. You should be warned, the controls are initially bizarre. The protagonist controls like a tank; you turn slowly and move inside your helmet instead of moving the camera.
It’s frustrating at first, but I recommend you don’t give up. Once you understand the controls, it makes sense in the context of the game. It isn’t precise because you’re encased in what’s essentially a mobile casket. Movement is intentionally limited and difficult. It was designed that way, and I found it added to the immersion despite the initial frustration.
In VR you move with a controller, and walk forward by looking in the direction you wish to go. You can also use the right stick, but it moves in a choppy rotation to avoid making the player nauseous.
Speaking of nausea, Narcosis (as well as other games with similar control schemes) made some in our office feel quite ill in virtual reality, so if you’re especially prone to motion-induced sickness, test it out before you make the plunge. If all else fails, you can always play it on a normal monitor.
An Ocean of Difference
Bioshock is my favorite FPS of all time, and though Narcosis is a very different game, the setting and tone invite comparison.
The atmosphere is similar, and both are frightening in their own way. While Bioshock is disturbing because of the other people trapped with you, Narcosis is frightening because there are is no one else. It’s simply you, some hostile ocean life, and the weight of the world on you as you try to survive.
I’m sure Narcosis took much inspiration from Bioshock, but it very much makes its own way, and the games are profoundly different despite both being about being stressed-out underwater.
Under The Sea
Narcosis is a game very much about atmosphere in the literal and figurative sense. It does an incredible job of making you feel like you’re trapped deep beneath the waves, and does so with remarkably immersive design.
The gameplay itself doesn’t quite keep up with the breathtaking visuals and compelling narrative, and the remarkably short campaign and lack of replay value keep it from reaching true greatness, but it’s absolutely worthy of the few hours it takes to complete.
As a VR experience, Narcosis is a thoroughly impressive feat, especially given the relatively small size of the team that created it.
If you don’t have access to VR, it’s still worth investigating. The strange controls and brevity of the experience are more than made up for by the wonderfully told story and remarkably captivating atmosphere.