The ocean is terrifying. Not only is it filled with nightmarish hellspawns that look like they flopped out of H.P. Lovecraft’s notebook, but it’s also a mysterious place we have yet to fully conquer because of how deadly it is for our fleshy bodies to navigate. That sense of danger, mystique, and separation makes the ocean depths a prime setting for a horror game that few seem to take advantage of. Narcosis, a walking simulator-horror hybrid that takes place on the seafloor, attempts to realize this potential, but ends up drowning because of its flimsy scares, poor controls, and abhorrent visuals.
Despite those flaws, Narcosis is far more focused on its story than it may initially seem. You play as a crew member of a deep sea mining operation that has gone sideways, causing you to saunter from place to place in hopes of finding a working escape shuttle. The story plays out in a series of non-diegetic monologues that slowly reveal themselves as something more as you progress.
Great voice acting and solid writing delve into such themes as survivor’s guilt, isolation, fear, and other harrowing topics and push the story forward at a satisfying clip. Its best elements come forward when those themes are juxtaposed against the dark recesses of the sea, reinforcing the spoken words through the cold, mysterious water that surrounds you. Listening to the one of the miners describe his deepest feelings of loneliness while walking around solitarily in a flooded, once-lively facility is narratively cohesive and where its walking sim roots shine the brightest.
Narcosis Review: A Comedy of Horrors
But, much like the creepy anglerfish that inhabit the game, these story beats are the sole point of illumination hanging above a dark, ugly monster. Literally. Narcosis looks like a late PS2 title with all the flat character models, stiff animation, and stale lighting that came standard in the most mediocre games from that generation.
Most of its visual sins can probably attributed to it being seemingly built around virtual reality, where crisp visuals come second to a non-barfy, smooth framerate. But the PS4 version shockingly doesn’t have PSVR support, meaning it can’t thrive on the immersive qualities of VR nor the gorgeous visuals of a native flat-screen gaming experience. It suffers from the worst of both worlds without VR and that’s sadly the only way to play on the PS4 and Xbox One.
The poor visuals negatively affect the gameplay too. Whereas its narrative pulls from walking sims, its gameplay tries to emulate other popular first-person horror games. But most of its attempts to disturb the player are unintentionally hilarious due to the game’s aforementioned technical shortcomings. Character models that are meant to frighten you look laughably awful, turning would-be jump scares into pure comic slapstick. Some even jitter around to look unsettling but end up looking like bobbleheads jacked up to a dozen times its normal speed. The small handful of genuinely tense moments get overshadowed by its overwhelming amount of corny, predictable scare tactics that lean more heavily toward humor than horror.
Narcosis Review: Weak Sea Diving
Narcosis’ gameplay systems are similarly stilted but much more frustrating. As is the case for most horror games, your deep-sea diver is incredibly vulnerable and its mechanics try to drive that home. You’re armed with a puny butter knife and a ridiculously shallow oxygen supply. The pathetic offensive attacks and inability to carry multiple oxygen tanks would be bigger issues if everything else wasn’t so actively destructive to the game’s flow and structure.
Since you’re meant to feel weak, most of the game boils down to a stealth game where tossing flares and swift maneuvers are meant to keep you out of harm’s way. But the confusing level design and wonky controls make sneaking a chore. Dark, unclear pathways often obfuscate where exactly you’re supposed to go and, since your oxygen ticks down at an alarming rate, you’re encouraged to not think and just go. The few set pieces are incredibly restrictive and unclear about said boundaries, especially the final one that I only beat due to blind luck. Pushing forward often forces you to misread the level design, which often punishes you with a slow, suffocating death or a quick, bloody one.
Flares also don’t always seem to be effective and, before you know it, you’ll be annoyingly mashing the attack button to fend off the smaller fish. Or worse, you’ll stumble into one of the giant enemy crabs who kick a gaping hole into your helmet for massive damage. No matter how you fail, you’ll be forced to sit through an excruciatingly long load time before you try to figure out what went wrong.
The propulsion pack can sometimes get you out of danger but ends up being a liability as often as a saving grace. It speeds up the agonizingly slow movement speed but is often used for platforming. Boosted jumps aren’t always predictable, as you’ll often stick to the environment and fall to your doom after your fuel has been drained. First-person platforming is already incredibly frustrating, as are underwater levels in general, and Narcosis shows that fusing the two is doubly as infuriating.
There’s an amazing idea hidden within the depths of Narcosis. An undersea, psychological horror game that pulls from Dead Space, Silent Hill, and Alien: Isolation sounds like a recipe for another classic. But unfortunately, a recipe is only as good as its ingredients. Narcosis’ voice acting and writing might hold water but the outdated visuals, laughable horror, and poor gameplay weigh the game down and cause it to sink faster than a corpse with cinder block shoes.
Reviewed on PS4. Copy provided by publisher.