When we play horror games, we usually expect some sort of supernatural element. Whether it’s a monster chasing us, a ghost haunting our character, or our worst terrors made real, many horror games depend on this element to be scary. Sometimes, though, reality can be a whole lot scarier than even our worst nightmares.
Narcosis is a new horror game for the PS4 that places you inside of a deep diving suit, dubbed a “walking coffin” by those who wear it. After a massive earthquake sends a destructive shockwave through your underwater facility, you’re left trapped and running low on air. Does this premise make for a terrifying horror game, or does this undersea title lack depth? Let’s find out.
Horror Grounded in Reality
The story is Narcosis is excellent from start to finish, so I won’t go into much detail about it for the sake of spoilers. That being said, the horror here manages to stay largely grounded in reality. The “enemies” in the game are real deep sea creatures who don’t need any introduction to be absolutely terrifying.
The game’s title is also a hint as to how the horror will play out. The noun, “narcosis” is defined as “a state of stupor, drowsiness, or unconsciousness produced by drugs.” Now, your character isn’t on anything that we know of, but the drug here could easily be fear itself, with symptoms that include claustrophobia, hallucinations, and borderline madness.
While Narcosis is only about three hours long, the story is very concentrated without feeling overwhelming. The primary method of delivery is narration that continues throughout the experience.
After a brief tutorial segment, your world is turned upside down when an underwater earthquake sends a shockwave tearing through the underwater facility where you work. Your suit, dubbed a “walking coffin” protects you, but you soon find yourself low on oxygen and alone on the ocean floor.
The need for air keeps you moving in Narcosis, but the story keeps pace with you. In addition to the narration, you can find the ID cards and personal effects of the other crew members who were killed when the base was ripped apart by the shockwave.
This allows you to read logs about these people and describe their final moments, which reflect the state they’re in when you find them. In many cases, I would say that a three-hour game could or should be longer, but Narcosis feels exactly right.
There are several revelations throughout the experience that add additional layers to the story, building to a climax that had my jaw firmly situated on the floor beneath my chair. While the game does flirt with the supernatural via the stress-induced hallucinations you experience, the story here is largely based on the reality of the situation and the fear of the unknown.
When I finished the game, and the credits rolled, I furiously searched for a plot hole somewhere. The final moments of the game were just too shocking, I was convinced the developers at Honor Code must have slipped up somewhere with a detail that doesn’t quite fit.
I am pleased to report that I didn’t find a single flaw in the story. Looking back, everything fit into place, leading up to an incredible finish. You can even listen to a special audio version of the story that unlocks when you finish the game.
I don’t really have a single complaint with the story here, in fact, Narcosis is one of the best horror stories I’ve experienced this year. It stands out by being wholly unique and steadfast in its dedication to realistic horror.
Varied Gameplay With a Few Missteps
The gameplay in Narcosis is experienced firmly within the confines of your deep-sea diving suit. You move with the left stick and look around the inside of your helmet with the right stick. Small screens on the bottom left and right of your helmet display your oxygen levels, flares, and thrust levels respectively.
This integrated UI keeps the screen clean and focused on the events happening in front of you. The perspective of looking out through the helmet immediately establishes a claustrophobic atmosphere that I really enjoyed.
Since you’re in a bulky diving suit, your movement speed is understandably slow. The addition of thrusters that you can use in quick bursts helps you get around a little faster, but they don’t have a ton of capacity. You’ll spend much of the time lumbering across the environments at a steady pace.
This actually works better than you would think until you’re faced with some of the game’s platforming. Some of the puzzles you encounter involve using your thrusters to cross gaps or leap between obstacles.
Here’s the thing: a clunky suit, burst thrusters, and platforming sound like a recipe for disaster. The result is actually a lot better than I expected in Narcosis, but it’s not perfect. For the most part, the underwater platforming was actually not half bad, thanks to relatively forgiving movement.
That being said, there were times when it slipped up, or I would get caught on a ledge. I appreciate the mixture of exploration, resource gathering, and puzzle solving in Narcosis, but I could have done with a few less platforming puzzles. They worked fine but were a low point in an otherwise amazing experience.
When you’re not solving puzzles, you can explore the relatively linear environments looking for collectibles, flares, and of course, oxygen. The game does a good job of providing plenty of air tanks if you’re looking, but there are a few segments where things get tight.
Facing horrific sights will also elevate your oxygen intake, draining your reserves faster. I actually think this could have been more difficult as it adds tension to the game in a great way. Of course, I say that now, but when I think back on the experience I would say I preferred not having to stress out too much about oxygen levels, it was a nice balance.
The combination of looking around the helmet and walking with the left stick does take some getting used to, especially because you’ll try to turn with the right stick and end up staring at the side of your helmet.
I imagine this decision was a result of porting to the game to PS4. On the PC, the game had an option for VR that is sadly absent here. I would love to see a patch later on to add PSVR support, but as of right now the game is only playable on a standard TV screen.
So here’s the big question: is it scary? The answer here isn’t quite as simple as the question. Narcosis absolutely has some nail-biting set piece moments that got my heart racing, and it also has some pretty terrifying enemies you’ll need to fight or dodge completely to avoid instant death.
The game’s atmosphere really does convey dread very well, and the moments of real danger offer a good dose of good old-fashioned terror, but some of the enemies lose their sheen by the game’s end, mostly because they’re reused pretty often and the strategy remains the same.
There’s enough going on here to keep you engaged, so don’t write this off a simple exploration title with jump scares. The combination of puzzle solving, light combat, and platforming all combine to keep you invested throughout.
Claustrophobic Presentation and Crushing Atmosphere
Narcosis has a very dedicated presentation. Even the game’s menus are representative of the screen on your suit’s wrist computer. It never pulls you out of the experience, even when you’re reading through crew logs.
The voice acting is top-notch, with an absolutely excellent performance from the main narrator. This game’s story is very well written, but it’s the performances that really sell it. The sound design and the decision to keep the player in the helmet of the suit the whole time both contribute to a genuine sense of claustrophobia and a heavy sense of dread.
Narcosis is almost the perfect horror game. It has a standout story, pitch-perfect atmosphere, and solid gameplay. With a few more scares, a little less platforming, and VR support, this could have been an absolute masterpiece.
It may have shot for the stars and ended up on the ocean floor, but as it turns out, this is exactly where Narcosis needed to be.
Final Score: 8.5/10
A copy of Narcosis was provided to PS4 Experts for review purposes
Article by - Bradley Ramsey
/Insert date - 7/30/18