Still Wakes The Deep Review – Beautiful But Grotesque Horror

You'll be anything but asleep.

Since Amnesia: The Dark Descent graced our screens back in 2010, horror games have had a renewed popularity amongst players. I’d even argue it’s paved the way for heavy hitters to come back in a bigger way than ever, like Resident Evil, but it’s also seen the rise of less involved horror games like Outlast, P.T. and Layers of Fear. Back then, Scottish developer The Chinese Room tried their hand at the Amnesia-like, crafting a sequel in A Machine For Pigs that was released to mixed results. I always saw the potential. But now, eleven years later, The Chinese Room are trying their hand at horror again. Still Wakes The Deep is a game pitched as “The Thing but on an oil rig.” It somewhat makes good on that premise, but it’s not without its faults.

Still Wakes The Deep takes place during Christmas in the 1970s aboard an oil rig in the North Sea. You play as an electrician stationed on the rig, Caz McLeary. The game opens on a typical day, with Caz heading from his room to grab some food from the cafeteria. It’s a stormy day outside, and the crew working on the rig at the time hit something with their drill. What follows is a sequence of events that will eventually see Caz trying his hardest to find safety and escape from the rig. The story is really why you’ll play Still Wakes The Deep, so I won’t delve too much into it, but you can probably see where this is going.

Still Wakes The Deep Review - Rig Outside

But despite there being a modicum of predictability to the story, Still Wakes The Deep does an admirable job at making you care for its colourful cast of characters. Unfortunately, despite this, I ironically found Caz to be the least interesting of the cast. His done-to-death storyline about his troubles at home did not resonate with me. But I instead found most of the supporting characters to be endearing, and surprisingly, I found myself really invested in getting them off the rig. It’s practical but straightforward writing, which is essential given how much of the experience of the game is carried by the game’s plot and characters.

That being said, Still Wakes The Deep’s design is a masterful gambit for any self-respecting horror creator. The unique setting works wonders in hitting many beats for anyone looking to be scared. When you’re glancing out onto the rough and heavy ocean, you can’t help but feel a sense of vertigo as the oil rig you’re on sways in the wind. When you’re in a room that’s inevitably flooded, there’s a genuine mix of both claustrophobia and thalassophobia as your play space slowly grows smaller. And, of course, a sense of tension and fear arises from the monsters Caz encounters. All macabre distortions of the human form, they’re suggestions of a human being rather than a human, and there’s something incredibly unnerving about that.

Still Wakes The Deep Review - Swimming Claustrophobia

Despite this, I didn’t find many of the more in-your-face elements of Still Wakes The Deep to be that frightening. But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t tense playing through some key beats in this six-hour adventure. The horror is well realised with minimal and surprisingly restrained use of cheap jump scares. Instead, the parts where I found the game to be most tense were where nothing was really happening – the strong audio design contributes to an immense sense of atmosphere that does a lot of the heavy lifting in making it all frightening.

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But there is a game hidden behind all that atmosphere and tension. As a game, Still Wakes The Deep is similar to Layers of Fear or SOMA – you’ll walk from area to area, eventually having to evade monsters stealthily. There is no combat, but these encounters are straightforward with specific paths or solutions. They’re so simple that you’d be forgiven for thinking they were scripted. The game does provide you with hiding spaces, like lockers, but I didn’t need to use them once throughout the entirety of the game. It suggests that Still Wakes The Deep perhaps thinks it’s a deeper experience than it actually is.

Still Wakes The Deep Review - Turning A Valve

The other side of the gameplay coin is the exploration and puzzle solving, though even that is similarly too linear or obvious to provide any meaningful friction to the player. I am reticent to even call them puzzles – most of the time, you’ll have to turn a valve to pass through a hot steam barrier before being on your merry way again. That’s really the extent of how complex these puzzles become. That is, not at all, and to even call them puzzles feels like a misnomer. It’s nice to have something to do, but it’s so simple and repetitious that it borders on tedious as time passes.

Which is unfortunate, because the simplicity and linearity of the entire experience really removes any sense of dread or foreboding. When something scary happens, the threats to the player feel minimal due to their simplistic nature. But when it’s not trying to scare you, it usually is owing to the strong ambience. It’s a bizarre situation. But while it’s not incredibly scary, it feels like the perfect recommendation to make to those who want to play more horror but might find heavier games too disturbing. On top of this, there is even an optional difficulty mode, which makes the stealth segments even easier, which is a nice touch.

Still Wakes The Deep Review - Hallway Corridor

That’s not to say Still Wakes The Deep isn’t an enjoyable experience. It is. It feels uneven. It’s just an experience that could’ve used more meat on the bones. There’s a heap of potential here, too – the setting is great, and the general flow of the game makes a lot of sense, even if it’s a little reminiscent of Dead Space’s “go fix this sense of progression. But it’s so unwilling to allow its players to wander off the beaten track that it feels too artificial to ever be genuinely terrifying.

But despite my issues, Still Wakes The Deep features some of the strongest artistic direction I think I’ve ever seen in a game. The organism that’s taken over the rig looks equal parts disgusting but beautiful, weaving its fleshy fin-like wings through the harsh artificial metals of the structure to create something that feels like living art. The lighting and weather effects add to the visuals, too, helping to bring the setting to life, making it feel both lived in and as much a character as the humans in the story. Many of the dead crew members you come across are rearranged in a way that they’re horrifying but almost artistic. It’s a phenomenal game that the art team should be really proud of.

Still Wakes The Deep Review - Flesh Elevator

Such pride should be found in the game’s original score as well. There’s a typical offering of tracks here from Jason Graves, known for his work on the Dead Space games, that really helps to up the tension. But the other things, the little things, really help make Still Wakes The Deep unnerving. Random sounds of metal hitting metal or laboured and inhuman breathing help to suggest to players that something might be in the room with them, even if they can’t see it. It’s masterfully put together and plays a massive role in building tension.

But we can’t talk about this narratively driven game without highlighting the performances from the cast. The team has gone the extra mile to keep things authentic, recruiting talent from the Isle of Sky, Dundee, Glasgow, and Aberdeen to really bring these characters to life. Such a dedication to authenticity is hard to ignore, as it contributes so much to building this believable world with strong performances that draw you into the game world.

Still Wakes The Deep Review - Corpse

But how much you enjoy Still Wakes The Deep really depends on how much you value the individual components that make up a game. It more than makes up for its gameplay shortcomings with some strong sound design and intensely good art direction. However, its simplicity and linearity can sometimes make it feel a bit too controlled to be truly terrifying.

Conclusion
Falling short of its potential, Still Wakes The Deep’s linearity and simplicity of gameplay does disservice to a great concept. Despite this, it’s still well worth a look, owing to its stellar art direction, well-written characters and strong atmosphere. The result is an inviting and alluring world that’s a joy to take in, even if it doesn’t quite scare the player in ways it intended.
Positives
Impressive Art Direction
Strong Sound Design
Endearing Characters To Save
Negatives
Simplistic Stealth Encounters
Linear Design Takes Away From The Horror
Drab Subplot For The Protagonist
7.5