Horror games are interesting. They inhabit such a small portion of the colourful genre spectrum, and yet within this genre there’s such a wide variety of experiences. Narcosis is one of those experiences. The deep sea is an untapped resource for horror games to explore (literally) but Narcosis does something different. It doesn’t necessarily tell a story. It profiles a character. It does it well. Though despite this unique direction it ambitiously takes, it sometimes feels like the destination isn’t worth the journey to get there.
In Narcosis, you play as a diver who is one of the only survivors of an industrial catastrophe. The facility you’re working in, which is situated deep in the ocean, has flooded and most of the members of your team are dead. In a bid to survive, you done a diving suit that lets you survive underwater for as long as you have oxygen. The goal from that point is simple – survive and get out.Narcosis is a pretty simple game. It’s tempting to call it a walking simulator, given its driven to tell you a story, but Narcosis is slightly more involved and interactive than your typical walking sim. For one, there’s threats that your diver must physically avoid (and even fight against if you so wish). There’s a few (but not heaps) of puzzles to solve, items to find and areas to explore. Narcosis’ experience is rooted in exploration, building tension and telling a story. As a result, it’s completely unpretentious.
There’s a few conceits here that attempt to make Narcosis interesting. For one, you don’t have health, but your suit has oxygen which drains as you move about the sunken station. Perhaps more interestingly, your breathing can affect how quickly you consume oxygen. Getting attacked by a creature or looking at things that unnerve your character will increase how much you consume oxygen. It’s an interesting idea, but Narcosis throws so much oxygen replenishment at you that it never seems to be truly threatening.You have a few other tools at your disposal too. The knife is slow moving but allows you to defend yourself against enemies. Flares can be thrown in the distance to illuminate the darkest depths of the ocean, but they can also be used to distract enemies if combat isn’t your thing. Which is understandable, since Narcosis’ combat is quite clunky. I’m sure this is a purposeful design choice, but at the end of the day combat doesn’t exactly invite participation.
Despite this, Narcosis does try to mix things up with a selection of enemies to either fight or avoid entirely. Cuttlefish and Angler Fish both look different but behave similarly, attacking when provoked. Spider Crabs are completely invulnerable to you attacks, and must simply be avoided. Octopi and Squid squirt ink in your face, increasing your character’s breathing and thus oxygen consumption. There’s some nice visual variety here but the enemies feel largely the same. This is the deep sea – there’s heaps of weirder choices that could’ve been used here.When you’re not fighting off these creatures you’ll probably just be exploring the world of Narcosis, and while it’s incredibly atmospheric it can get mellow and cruisy at times. The suit you’re in is naturally quite slow, lumbering along at a steady pace. You can use jet booster type devices on the suit to propel yourself in a direction for a short time, creating some interesting platforming segments between the more set-piece driven moments. There are times where this slower pace builds the tension, but often it can feel more tedious than anything else.
Narcosis tells a pretty interesting story, even if it’s deceptively simple. Most players will be ale to breeze through that story in about four hours or so. Those looking to lengthen their experience can easily commit to looking for personal effects of the crew. Most are easy to find, some hidden quite well, but these can provide extra replay value to further flesh out the world of Narcosis. Beyond that, you’ll unlock a pieced together radio show that’ll explain the whole story to you once you finish. Story aside, Narcosis doesn’t have a lot of reason to revisit its darkest depths.Perhaps this is because Narcosis is designed to be playable in a standard way or with virtual reality. On Xbox One, there is no such option for those players. On PC, you can play in virtual reality with either HTC Vive or Oculus Rift. While the scares in Narcosis feel banal, given my experience with titles like Resident Evil 7, Narcosis could easily be elevated while in VR.
Despite this, Narcosis does a great job at building atmosphere and tension with a well-designed world. While there is clearly a limited budget in use here, the stations you explore feel well designed, they feel lived in. When you do exit the station, the environments are similarly well detailed – discarded creatures who’ve been preyed on litter some areas while those still living scurry away in reaction to you plodding along their homes. Human characters make limited appearances, lacking the detail needed to sell the scenes of dread they’re trying to convey.
On the other hand, the game’s audio design is well executed. There’s always some noise in Narcosis, whether it be the distant echoing of something outside the station you’re in, the beeping of malfunctioning equipment, the sound of your character breathing. There’s always something you’ll be listening to in Narcosis, building suspense better than most of its contemporaries. Voice work is surprisingly solid too – your character narrates his experience with a convincing tone of regret.
It’s hard to recommend Narcosis to anyone who wants something more than just a story. There’s some interesting concepts here that could’ve translated to some great gameplay mechanics, but they feel under developed. The story and characterisation is great, but everything else pales in comparison. Narcosis is a great premise that unfortunately never really lives up to what sounded like high potential.
The Xbox One version of this game was played for the purpose of this review. You can read our review policy HERE.