The base of the ocean is large and brimming with life, but it’s an ecosystem we don’t frequent as people, at least I’m certainly not taking trips down there. Because of that much, it can at times feel like a mystery or unknown, making it prime real estate for a horror game. Narcosis is a first-person adventure game with horror elements set in the mysterious depths of the bottom of the ocean. You are a member of the research outfit that has built an impressive, state-of-the-art lab named Oceanova. Today, the absolute worst case scenario has unfolded as a seismic shift has severely compromised your lab to the point of catastrophe. Being away from the facility on a job, one that requires you to be in a massive metal suit that is constantly in need of oxygen, you come back to find the wreckage and search for your teammates, but there isn’t much to be salvaged. What remains is the body of an ambitious structure and the corpses of those you once called friends. Now it’s just about survival. Escaping while being haunted by denizens of the deep and the burned-in images of the remains of your crew will be your character’s own nightmarish gauntlet. It’s a fine set-up, and while at times developer Honor Code’s Narcosis has brief bits where it delivers on that set-up, it more frequently has moments of confusion and frustration.
Narcosis is a game that attempts to get mileage out of your fear of the claustrophobic, any nightmares you may have had about drowning or asphyxiating, and the strange appearances of various aquatic life that calls the bottom of the ocean its home. At one point the game refers to this suit that’s keeping you alive as a ‘walking-coffin’ and apart from being a punchy phrase used in and outside of the game through its marketing, it’s an adequate metaphor used to describe what it feels like to play Narcosis, for better or worse. The specific way the first-person perspective is framed here gives the player a look inside the helmet of this suit equipped with a hud that displays messages, your oxygen, and a cooling gauge for a short burst of speed that you can occasionally use. On top of slow, and heavy navigation under water, the weight of your suit is also reinforced as just another thing slowing you down.There’s clearly been careful thought given to how the game can immerse the player as well as make them feel vulnerable, and there are genuine segments where these decisions lead to short moments of tension. Moments where I stood still as I planned my next move, but it also led to plenty of moments where it disconnected me from the game. Narcosis does such a good job of making you feel big and heavy, that it’s hard to actually have a decent understanding of your spatial awareness in its first-person perspective.
A lot of the game is sneaking past deadly fish who will either kill you in one hit or will become troublesome enough that they cause your player character to breathe heavily out of fear or exhaustion from fighting, causing you to consume more oxygen. Many of these encounters can be avoided, but I never felt like I had an understanding of when I was too close to enemies or if I could go past them. Sure, this instilled a tension and slight fear within me, but it was mostly because I was afraid of losing progress or experiencing a major setback.
The stories of those who worked and inhabited the Oceanova can be found while exploring, but the main narrative is delivered through a recorded conversation, taking place after the events the game, between the player character and a reporter that plays as you progress deeper. For most of the game this back and forth isn’t really remarkable. It’s a lot of the player character explaining how horrible the endeavor was, somewhat attempting to be that main narrative thread and adding to the atmosphere. A reason why this didn’t always resonate for me was because the details given in this narration are vague. Sometimes it feels like the voice of the character I was embodying was not telling the story I was going through as a player. The game does try to justify this, but that disconnect was there while I was playing and it left me uninvested in the goings on.
That little investment also made many of the scares to be had in Narcosis feel shallow. Perhaps it’s some unknown appreciation for sea life that has been hidden within me, but because most of your ‘enemies’ in Narcosis are just that, sea creatures, I wasn’t really afraid of them, just mostly annoyed that I had so much trouble trying to avoid confrontation with them.
The strongest aspect I found within Narcosis was its final act. These final moments get really experimental compared to the rest of the game and do a great job of messing with the player’s expectations. It all leads up to a twist ending that surprised and landed well with me. I don’t expect it to work for everyone who spends time with the game, but it ended my time with Narcosis on a really positive note.
Narcosis has a decent setup for a tense and perhaps even frightening underwater adventure, but I found myself not enjoying a lot of the final product. I can see that there was deliberate thought put into much of the design here, but the elements that make it—movement, narrative structure, and scares to be had— are elements that I had a hard time interacting with or didn’t feel sold on.
Narcosis was reviewed on a PlayStation 4 Pro system with review code provided by a PR Representative for Evolve PR.