“When it comes to Empathy, there’s no manual for that…”
Hailing directly from the Golden State itself are newcomer indie dev: Honor Code, with their claustrophobic, genre-bending survival horror set at the depths of the Pacific Ocean: Narcosis. Dealing with themes such as insanity and isolation, Narcosis pulls no punches as it presents a haunting vision of how an individual battles with their own mind after being left stranded and alone, following the aftermath of a natural disaster. Narcosis originally released on PC and the Xbox One in March 2017, with the 27th June marking the PS4 release of the game, which acts as the “definitive console edition of the critically acclaimed deep-sea survivor’s story”. As usual I’ll be going over the time I’ve spent with the game, deconstructing the pros and cons, while ultimately discussing as to whether it’s worth the £24.99 asking price.
From H.P. Lovecraft’s 1928 quintessential short story: The Call of Cthulhu to the haunting darkness found in James Cameron’s Sci-Fi classic The Abyss (1989), the mysteries of the ocean have always synergised well with the fear of the unknown. For myself, the black depths of the ocean has always been an aspect of the natural world that I’ve been paradoxically both drawn to and terrified of at the same time; the idea of being engulfed in a vast body of darkness, trapped under tremendous amounts of pressure without any means of a quick exit is the stuff of my worst nightmares, but at the same time I can appreciate that it’s a very effective tool for those versed in the production of horror. Thalassophobia aside, video games based within this particular field tend to be more psychologically haunting in compared to their peers (Frictional Games’ SOMA is a prime example of this done right) relying more on atmosphere rather than outright jump scares (starting at you Resident Evil). Another prime example of this particular brand of horror is newcomer indie dev: Honor Code, with their first foray into the gaming stratosphere: Narcosis.
Narcosis is a claustrophobic, survival horror title set at the depths of the Pacific Ocean, placing you in the shoes of an engineer working at a vast methane-mining complex called Oceanova. While out on a routine check, an 8.0 earthquake hits leaving the facility in ruin and the player character stranded alone two miles down from surface level. To make matters worse, the player character is trapped inside a half-tonne diving suit known as an ADS (Atmospheric Diving Suit) keeping the hydrostatic pressure at bay, but also being the likely resting place for the protagonist as their oxygen gauge steadily decreases (being aptly described in-game as a ‘walking coffin’). Soon after the incident it’s up to the sole survivor to escape from the facility by any means necessary; along the way they must locate the missing crew members of Oceanova, avoid or defend themselves against the hostile wildlife that lurks on the ocean floor, while ultimately battling with their own mind as they begin to drift into insanity due to isolation and confinement. The claustrophobic experience found within Narcosis is by far one of its strongest selling points, and is made all the more potent by the fact that it’s grounded very much in reality, featuring only minor supernatural elements that come in the form of hallucinations (no run-ins with Cthulhu on this voyage I’m afraid).
What lurks beneath: There are horrors to be found within Narcosis, but they are very much in-tandem with reality.
In terms of gameplay, Narcosis definitely falls into the realm of ‘walking simulator’, following the likes of The Chinese Room’s Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture in perfect tandem. Narcosis is billed as a survival horror game, and as such resource management is a key feature of the game’s progression; throughout the 3-4 hour long experience the protagonist will have to manage their supplies if they have any hope of making it out alive, these come in the form of oxygen and flares. Oxygen levels decrease at a steady rate and can be refilled with 02 canisters that can be found throughout the complex (or on the corpses of your colleagues) further adding to this is that your oxygen levels will decrease even faster when the engineer is exposed to stressful situations (witnessing a giant octopus swimming overhead or finding a colleagues half eaten corpse for example). This bleeds into the game’s combat system, as you only have a small diving knife to defend yourself against the game’s smaller creatures (oxygen depletion speeds up tenfold during combat) making enemy engagement somewhat of a calculated risk, with avoidance sometimes being the smarter play. Flares are used for both illuminating dark areas as well as keeping some of the bigger creatures at bay, giving you precious seconds to find an alternate path. Polar to survival, there is a deep aspect of exploration within Narcosis, featuring a number of collectibles that give the many corpses of the Oceanova crew a back-story and personality (making it all the more personal when you read the final logs). However the gameplay overall can be somewhat repetitive in its design, and isn’t helped at all by the tank-like controls (staring at you again Resident Evil) that truly make you feel like you’re in a half-tonne diving suit (whether this is a good or bad thing is a matter of preference). In terms of general performance the game isn’t anything to write home about, being displayed at 1080p and 30fps on a PS4 Pro, making the game dull somewhat on a 4k monitor (not an issue for those who didn’t make the upgrade).
Throughout Narcosis, the game is narrated by the engineer in the form of a survivor’s interview, that explores the psychology surrounding being isolated and trapped at the bottom of the ocean, following a catastrophic event. Couple together the moments of narration with the game’s approach to visual hallucinations and you have an effective juxtaposition between reality and the darkest reaches of one’s own mind. The most memorable moment of this was when the survivor was responding to a question about how they managed to stay sane while down there, all the while on-screen there are numerous unoccupied ADS suits chasing down the protagonist in the usual horror fashion; the contrasting nature found in these moments are where Narcosis truly shines. The overall narrative found in Narcosis definitely worth the three-four hours that you’ll spend playing it, especially as it has some pretty significant plot twists that I genuinely never saw coming, making the experience all the more sweeter.
Who brought crabs to the party?: Flares are your best friend when it comes to Spider crabs in Narcosis, just make sure you have enough of them on hand at all times.
Overall Narcosis is a short (but sweet) horror experience that makes a solid attempt to firmly root itself in reality, drawing upon the last bastion of earth that remains largely unexplored, amplifying our fear of the unknown. Somewhat let down by its repetitive gameplay, the overall experience is well worth the time that you put into it, especially when it comes to the atmospheric environments and plot twists that keep the narrative from going stale. Just don’t expect much for the £24.99 asking price.
A review code was provided by Honor Code, Inc