Review of Narcosis, a horror/walking simulator for Playstation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
Fear, claustrophobia, paranoia, entrapment, hallucinations…mixed in with the minor inconvenience of being trapped in a diving suit known as a “walking coffin,” at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. This is the disaster scenario awaiting you in Honor Code’s first-person survival story “Narcosis,” which was recently released for the Playstation 4. Here’s our review.
“Narcosis” follows the crew of the Oceanova, a research group mining methane at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. You play as one of the industrial divers out on a routine mission, where a large underwater explosion separates you from the rest of the crew. Your mission is simple: survive, check for survivors, and escape to the surface. The main problem isn’t only a lack of oxygen, though. There’s plenty of other things that are watching you in the darkness.
It reminds me a bit of James Cameron’s “The Abyss” in terms of the setting. There’s this constant feeling of impending doom as the story unfolds, all coming from multiple directions, whether it be actual creatures or psychosis. As a side note, if you’ve never seen “The Abyss,” I highly recommend you do. It won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and showed Cameron’s affinity for wowing us technologically even back in 1989.
Controls and Elements
I would define “Narcosis” as a horror walking simulator. Remember, you’re trapped in a deep diving suit at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Movement, as you may suspect, is slow and plodding in water, adding tension to the atmosphere. I’d liken it to slowly walking around in a mech suit, except there’s no explosive ordnance to protect yourself with.
The sense of claustrophobia never truly leaves you because you’re always encompassed by water, even when inside structures. This is further exacerbated by the suit itself, as your head can only be tilted a few degrees in any direction, allowing the player to see important HUD features like your next goal, oxygen meter, thrust gauge, and flares remaining.
As one would expect, oxygen is a vital resource. There’s a percentage meter inside your suit that slowly decreases over time from 100, but it can and will quickly diminish if the character is under extreme stress (being attacked by a sea creature, for example). Various oxygen stations and bottles are scattered throughout the landscapes, so it’s something you constantly have to manage. Although, to be fair, I do not believe I ever actually ran out of oxygen once, thanks to the thrusters. Your suit comes equipped with thrusters that quickly propel the player across chasms or allow you to quickly escape various encounters in “Narcosis.” These thrusters have a small cooldown after each use, so you have to use them sparingly.
Your character only has two options for self-defense: A small knife or flares. The flares are used to mainly distract enemies while you escape, but they can also be used to illuminate your surroundings, giving you a chance to mitigate some of the paranoia. “Narcosis” isn’t about fighting battle after battle, but rather the ambiance in the room, the terror of being trapped and hunted.
And the knife, look, it isn’t much to look at. You can use it to panic swing at anything that tries to eat your face, but that’s about it. It’s certainly wonky to swing underwater and it doesn’t feel very effective. Think of a clunky Skyrim combat here, but at least you’ve got something to defend yourself with, I suppose. Again, don’t expect a speedy combat system. You’re vastly overpowered and literally waving your arms underwater.
Inside structures, it’s fairly easy to figure out where to go next by the process of elimination and/or solving whatever puzzles “Narcosis” throws at you. Outside, there isn’t too much in the way of visual exploration indicators, but you can usually figure out where to go next by looking for small pathways that seem to go deeper and deeper. If you do venture too far off the path, you’ll be greeted with a quick, unsettling death by slowly falling into the dark depths. Then your suit faceplate will begin to crack before water floods in. Truly unsettling.
The audio exploration indicators are a bit different, though. Following the correct path rewards you with narrative audio cues that feature truly stellar voice acting. These narrations start playing and one should surmise that they’re going in the right direction. Certainly one of the highlights of the game.
Interactions with other humans are very scarce in “Narcosis,” increasing the foreboding feeling of your imminent demise. You’ll either overhear them on coms or quite literally stumble across their body. As you probably expect, there’s some casualties due to the explosion, so it’s your job to find these bodies and get their ID tags to take back to the surface. An interesting mechanic tied to the ID tags is found within the HUD pause screen, allowing you to read further about the various crewmembers, which adds some nuanced background and weight to the story. Additionally, each crewmember also has items hidden throughout the game, further illuminating their backstories.
As a side note: Oddly enough, even though the setting felt more alive and real with dead crewmembers in front of me, it took some of the fear and isolation out of the game. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, as I was more interested in the story than having a panic attack.
Now, “Narcosis” originally came out in 2017 for PC and I can imagine it was a really great fit for VR. For this review, I was playing it on the TV with a Playstation 4, though. I suspect because of this TV screen experience, jump scares can be a bit hokey at times, but there’s a few that will still get you, especially as your character is completely capable of hallucinations. I’ll add that the best way to play without VR, in my opinion, is certainly with headphones or surround sound on. A lot of care was taken into creating an atmosphere that leaves you uneasy as you peak around corners and traverse dark corridors, all while hearing odd noises from creatures in the darkness.
The graphics of “Narcosis” aren’t going to wow you, but they are serviceable. The flora at the bottom of the ocean as well as the buildings look fine, but there’s definitely a lack of graphical fidelity, which is most notable when zoomed in on a crewmember or sea creature. One thing they nailed, though, was the breathing inside the suit, which slightly fogs up the faceplate as you inhale and exhale. Very nice touch.
As far as pacing, I finished “Narcosis” in about four hours, which I think is reasonable for this type of game genre. There were only a few areas where it wasn’t clear what to do next, which admittedly can be frustrating when there isn’t much to look at, but that was more the exception than the rule. I should note there was one puzzle near the end that stumped me for a while, causing a bit of frustration and motion sickness due to the environment, but I eventually got through it and thankfully heard the next narrative cue. In short, I think the pacing aided by the exquisite voice work was enough to make me want to see the story through.
Is it Fun?
“Narcosis” is fun and serviceable as a walking simulator. It’s not going to set the world on fire, but there’s entertainment to be had here and I respect the idea behind it. Recommendation-wise, if somebody were to ask me whether or not they should get it, I’d ask two things: Do you like horror games and do you like walking simulators? If it’s a yes to both, then definitely take a look at it if you have the coin.