I relate to people that have thalassophobia. If you’re unsure of the long confusing word, it’s the fear of the ocean or more specifically the fear of large open waters. The sea is a frightening place even if it does look beautiful as a backdrop for wedding day pictures when the sun goes down. It’s a gigantic expanse of nothing that contains all manner of horrific slimy beings that may or may not want to have you for lunch. It’s the anonymity of the ocean that can be the scariest thing. We don’t know much about what goes on in there despite our best efforts and the deepest parts are just pressured fields of lonely, dark potential terror.
Narcosis is a game that zeroes in on many terrifying aspects of the sea, but it also touches upon the frailty of man, the endurance of the human psyche when faced with adversity and how crabs can scare the living daylights out of you. It’s a multifaceted psychological horror game that takes place entirely inside a hulking diving suit on the bottom of the ocean.
Under da sea
The premise of Narcosis is relatively simple. A gigantic unexpected earthquake hits your underwater expedition that is out at sea and just wrecks everything in its path, including the constructed habitats that you and your teams used to stay alive. You’re in an ADS, more commonly known as an Armoured Diving Suit, and you need to somehow navigate the dilapidated ruins that now litter the sea floor in search of a way back to the surface. You’re stranded, without anyone else to guide you in one of the most inhospitable places on this earth. Things aren’t exactly rosy. It’s not all quiet though, there’s a running narration happening in the background where you’re listening to an interview about the events that happened.
Narcosis likes to play around with the psyche.
Narcosis likes to play around with the psyche. The effects that loneliness, and the crushing realisation of that, has on a person, coupled with some horrific trauma. If you witness all your friends and colleagues get killed in an instant and then you have to fight nature itself inside something that the game aptly described as a walking coffin, you’re going to lose your marbles. Hallucinations are all over the place, guilt rushes over you even if you have done nothing wrong and every fibre of your being is telling you to give up. It’s a horrific journey from start to finish, but the narrative takes some surprising turns. The ending is something that is still stuck in my mind and will be for a while. The game is worth experiencing just for that.
Thrown into the deep end
The game can almost be construed as a walking simulator. I wouldn’t lump it into that terribly named genre, but the majority of the game is you walking around and witnessing things around you. There are parts, especially in the later sections of the game, where environmental puzzles get thrown in and some mobility challenges as well. Since you’re in a heavy diving suit, your movements are extremely slow and methodical. You have a finite amount of oxygen, but you find canisters all around the sea floor and wreckage of your once prosperous underwater habitat. There are also thrusters that your suit comes with that you can use to quickly dash or climb moderately steep inclines, but they are limited in their capacity and can only be used in short bursts.
It’s a beautifully mixed horror cocktail.
Your oxygen drains naturally over time, but if your character looks at traumatic events, the oxygen intake grows and reserves deplete faster. This can happen when you find one of your crewmates that died a terrible death on the seafloor or you get attacked by a cuttlefish. Yes, the underwater creatures are not the friendly kind and there is a bit of combat in this game. These slimy underwater vermin will attack you if you come close by putting their disgusting mouths all over your helmet and you need to stab them off before they crack your helmet or all your oxygen is depleted from all the panicking you’re doing. You can counter them with your knife by timing your attacks just as they want to attack you and while I won’t exactly call this premier fighting mechanics, that wasn’t the intention. You’re in a giant suit, you’re not going to be nimble.
Additionally, there are spider crabs that want to ruin your day. If you’ve not seen a spider crab, they are some of the most disturbing nautical creatures you will ever see and these eight-legged monsters actually made my skin crawl. They also one-hit kill you and you can’t fight back. You need to carefully stealth around them or just run away, hoping they won’t poke you through your helmet.
Scared by water
If you couldn’t tell, Narcosis is a horror game and an effective one at that. You have the “real” side of it in the form of the annoying cuttlefish and the Lovecraftian crabs that want to kill you for meat and/or sport. And you also have the psychological aspects as your character slowly loses their mind under the crushing weight of the ocean. Surreal things happen throughout your journey and some that genuinely had the hairs standing up on the back of my neck and even questioning my own sanity at times. It’s a beautifully mixed horror cocktail and most of the things it has going for it works in its favour.
I could almost immediately tell that this was a game that was meant for VR and I’m right in that assumption because it is a VR title on PC. Inexplicably, it isn’t on PSVR and we just get the normal hulking sea suit experience in 2D on PS4. It’s still good without the goggles, but the effects of it would be tenfold in virtual reality. That isolation and fear of the unknown would have been something incredible to witness in VR and to be in that suit would have been something else. It pains me so much that they decided to port this directly to PS4 and didn’t rather make a PSVR version because this would have truly been one of the top games on the young platform. But you cannot criticise something for what it’s not.
Narcosis is a perilous journey through the most unknown and terrifying places on this planet. Namely the ocean, and the human mind. As you shuffle along the sea floor and take in the trauma and the terrifying world that was built, you start to realise some things. Mainly how you’re never going to swim again, but also the limits that a person’s mind can go to when robbed of others and how the mind can be strained. It’s a genuinely brilliant representation of that. It’s not without its faults though. The controls, while thematic, felt awkwardly sticky and unresponsive, there should have been more puzzles and variety thrown in outside of the latter acts and the visuals do leave something to be desired – but I think VR on other platforms can be blamed for that.
It’s a relatively short game, but it felt like just the right length as to not overstay its welcome and you could tell that the people who created it really believed in what they were making. It’s well worth the purchase, but be warned not to play it before your family vacation to the beach.