Finding oneself stranded deep beneath the surface on the Pacific seafloor is without a doubt one of the scariest predicaments. Trapped beneath miles of ocean, barely clinging to life, with every breath you take you are that much closer to death. This is the unpleasant situation that we find the protagonist in Narcosis, as something terrible has happened at the deep sea habitat. After first having to make your way by foot wearing a half ton mechanical suit with nothing more than a flashlight, some flares, and a small knife, nothing can prepare you for what you may find. Although available on PC through both the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, developer Honor Code has brought the physiological survival story to Xbox One.
The game opens on your initial training in a pool surrounded by flags of various nations presumably involved in the scientific research; however, it doesn’t take long before your mind shifts reality to all sorts of nightmarish images and creepy Lovecraftian sea creatures. The narrative is purposely obtuse, as we don’t even know who we are controlling as a character. As you find your first colleague leaning against a highly pressured broken pipe, you know that something bad has happened. To survive, you must take their oxygen tanks, and as a tribute, you reclaim their ID badge. As you confirm their identity, their photo is grayed out. It’s an enjoyable meta element to the game, as you try and figure out who you are, and your role in the operation.
Maintaining your oxygen supply is key to your survival. It steady decreases as you progress through the game, however, there are times that your breathing rate skyrockets, depleting your oxygen supply swiftly. Coming across a dead body or a hallucination that toys with your mind will drain your oxygen faster than normal. It’s here that Narcosis toys with the player, having you second guess what is real and what is in your mind. You may find yourself walking out of somethings quarters and down the hallway only to find a blood infested room littered with bodies, or the already dim lights may turn completely black, revealing empty diver suits surrounding your body, reaching out for you to save them. It had me gasping quite a few times, especially when the cuttlefish attacks.
Platforming across instant-death gaps in the ocean floor has led to many deaths, however, dealing with the various smaller sea creatures can be just as deadly. While their direct attacks don’t cause harm, the act of them stalking and jetting through the water at your helmet is downright unnerving. Your pocket knife is the key to survival, but during these encounters, you will breathe heavily, costing you precious oxygen in the process. Your puny knife looks like a toothpick in relation to the size of the larger crabs that you’ll come across. These sections require stealth and patience, as they can instantly kill you by piercing right through your heavy suit or helmet with a single blow.
Narcosis feels designed for VR, and as such, it’s a relatively short experience, lasting only a handful of hours. The game runs smoothly on Xbox One, and even without VR, I found the game unnerving. The fear of the pitch dark unknown on the ocean with all sorts of nightmarish creatures is enough to give me nightmares. Combine it with the disturbing imagery and the death of all your colleagues, and you have an intriguing premise with some great narrative set pieces.
Note: Narcosis was reviewed based on a digital Xbox One copy of the game, provided by the publisher.