When we think of deep-sea horror, we often think of monsters – sharks, giant squid, Cthulhu, the like. The term narcosis, however, is a medical one – specifically, both nitrogen and hydrogen narcosis are possible consequences of deep diving, and it can cause all sorts of mental alterations, up to and including hallucinations. Narcosis’ title, then, establishes from the start that this isn’t a top-shelf oceanic horror experience. The ocean is dangerous here, of course, but ultimately the deepest problems come from within – your weak body and your frail mind.
When an earthquake wrecks an underwater methane extraction site, the player character is trapped in a heavy, ponderous diving suite. All the other workers at the site are dead, and you must scrounge oxygen to survive and flares to light your way through the murky depths of the ocean. The local wildlife is occasionally dangerous – spider crabs, large cuttlefish, and angler fish can threaten you in certain circumstances – but they can usually be avoided or chased off without much trouble. In most cases, your biggest enemy is the time; there are a few levels where it’s easy to get lost or fall off platforming sequences, which can seriously strain your oxygen supply.
The real meat of the game’s horror is psychological. Your suit boots thump around like a stressed-out heartbeat, though at times the beating continues even when you’re standing still. You’ll be hallucinating regularly, experiencing distorted levels, hugely inflated objects, dead crew members sneaking up on you and, most strikingly, the ghost of a 19th-century diver who seems to have a special interest in you. The voice acting for both is well-done and natural sounding, and adds an extra narrative layer that really, really pays off near the end.
The art contributes as well – the depths of the ocean are almost pitch black aside from splashes of bio-luminescence and seeping magma. Technological lighting blasts out powerful yet pitifully narrow cones of light that don’t feel like enough, and the flares you can fire from your suit cast a haunting glow on the scenery. The overall feeling is claustrophobic, weighed down, and stressful if not outright frightening.
It’s not a perfectly engrossing experience, though. One of the things that most struck me as pointlessly absurd were the wildlife attacks. You are attacked by large cuttlefish with unusually long appendages, angry spider crabs, and female angler fish. These aren’t animals that routinely attack creatures much larger than themselves, and it’s a bit much to think they could easily ruin an advanced titanium diving suit, let alone want to. I understand the desire to appeal to gaming tropes, but much of the game’s uncanniness arises from the realistic normality of its surroundings – the friendly posters and post-it notes in flooded habitats, familiar fish peacefully swimming around, tube worms rising from the ground. The animal attacks feel out of place, and quickly become more annoying than anything – the various hallucinations are much more effective.
Another sticking point for me was that the controls felt remarkably clunky. Narcosis is VR-compatible, and VR seems to have been a priority here; movement controls are completely detached from camera controls, and it’s not possible to step sideways. This probably works well enough in VR, but on a flat screen, being unable to change your direction with the mouse means much slower and less precise reactivity, and it means occasionally walking into obstacles or stepping off ledges if you don’t remember the unusual control scheme.
My final complaint relates to one of the levels in the middle of the game – it’s a vast open space with ridges and canyons heading in all directions, but it’s so dark it’s even difficult to retrace steps you’ve already taken before, let alone plan ahead. That may be the point, but it was more irritating than suspenseful. Luckily, the rest of the levels are fairly linear, which allows you to focus on your oxygen meter and whatever puzzle-solving you’re engaged in without getting lost.
Overall, though, the experience was effectively creepy and unsettling, and didn’t overstay its welcome. I’m not saying much about the plot, because there are things happening in Narcosis that absolutely should not be spoiled; the psychological elements in particular go into some interesting places, both hallucinatory and otherwise. If you’ve got a few spare hours and enjoy tense horror games with surprising twists, or deep-sea oceanography, play this and see it through to its conclusion.
PUBLISHER – Honor Code, Inc. | DEVELOPER – Honor Code, Inc. | ESRB – N/A | PLATFORMS – HTC Vive / Oculus Rift / PC
RECOMMENDED – Narcosis is a tense and atmospheric horror experience with an interesting psychological edge. A few of the game’s twists pack a serious punch, and it’s worth playing for those alone. Expect some frustrating controls and level design, and some unbelievably rude local wildlife.