Note: Game key for PS4 was provided by the developer. This had no bearing on our review.
“Thalassophobia: an intense and overwhelming fear of the sea.” If you’re afraid of the sea, you probably shouldn’t play this game. If you aren’t, you will be after spending a few hours inside your walking coffin.
Narcosis, a first-person horror title by Honor Code Inc, introduces you to its mechanics (and its immense, clunky diving suit) in a serene, well-lit pool. Equipped with some gentle thrusters, emergency flares, and a small pocket knife for emergencies, you are tasked with running a few drills, but the fear sets in quickly. Even in the safety of the pool, your vision blurs and you begin falling. Falling fast. Your face mask is blurred by dark, murky water and you find yourself on the ocean floor surrounded by wreckage and a burning flare. There is no direction or guidance. You are abandoned.
Your vision slowly clouds again only to return you to the safety of the pool for a short period. Clouds come and go, and eventually the darkness sets in. During routine work on the exterior of the underwater station that you and twenty others call home, you’re caught in what becomes known as the Oceanova Disaster. An underwater earthquake damages the specialized deep sea facility, the rest of the crew doesn’t make it, and you’re left with their bodies littering the wreckage as you clamber to find an escape pod to the surface. With these horrific scenes on display around nearly every corner, hungry creatures of the ocean on the hunt, and the risk of running out of air at the forefront of your mind, the horrors of the deep, both physical and mental, can easily wear on you.
Throughout the desperate escape, Narcosis is able to blend its mechanics to the experience to create something dangerously immersive. While there is the threat of being hunted by vampire squid, colossal spider crabs, and carnivorous fish, there is no health bar. Instead, the oxygen readout on your helmet will deplete rapidly when under duress which includes seeing threatening creatures, the dead bodies of your friends and colleagues, or slowly falling into a dark abyss while watching as your helmet cracks and shatters under the pressure. A warning message eventually appears on a loading screen: “running low on oxygen will cause audiovisual aberrations.” You may not think anything of it until the stress sets in for long periods of time, oxygen tanks become scarce, and the hallucinations take over.
Unlike other first-person games where you guide the character’s movement with one joystick and their directionality with another, Narcosis places you into the diver’s suit. Rather than a full body turn, you control the eyes inside the helmet which means your HUD is only visible when you glance down to view it and isn’t an omnipresent, meta readout. With this design you can try and look around a corridor for small details all while moving straight ahead, though the disorientation combined with the haunting loneliness and desperation can lead you to dead-end hallways that you knew should end in a new room. You may also glimpse abandoned dive suits moving out of the corner of your mask, or at least, you’ll think you do.
Embracing the realism of a deep sea venture means that combat in Narcosis is nearly non-existent. Your utility pocket knife is the only means by which to defend yourself from any potential monsters, but the timing of slashing at aggressive sea life before it latches to your face never quite feels consistent. The unique movement mechanics, while interesting, can also feel clunky and take a bit of getting used to. These features do not diminish the impact of the Narcosis’ expert world development and storytelling. Through scattered ID tags and trinkets left behind by those you’ve lost, you’re able to form a complete picture of what life was like at the bottom of the Pacific, and the few abilities granted to you are put to good use in traversing the dangerous, otherwordly darkness of the ocean. The dreadful silence is filled only by the repetitious, metallic clang of your coffin’s footsteps and a narration that develops as your explore the deep.
The horrors of Narcosis can be experienced in virtual reality, but even through my console experience, playing with a headset on placed me in the suit. There were moments when I could not breath; moments when the panic of not being able to escape my own mind were so unbearable that I felt an overwhelming need to take off a helmet that wasn’t there. The ominous, low rumble of water and the fear of never escaping the base consumed me, and even as the credits rolled on the final screen, I felt uneasy. Whether you intend to fight to survive or to your dying breath, put on your suit and take a dive.
+ Deeply unsettling and stressful atmosphere (if you’re into that sort of thing)
+ Visions and hallucinations are viscerally impactful in first-person
+ Well-crafted world and a story that unfolds naturally as you progress
+ Environmental puzzles that blend well with the minimalist control scheme
+ Small collectibles are a challenge to find and reward thorough play
– Movement often helps to set the pace for the game, but it can feel a bit too slow at times
– Adjusting your field of view can also feel clunky and lead me to miss a few quick time events
– Fighting off the wildlife is made more difficult than it needs to be because of stiff mechanics