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Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Honor Code
Developer: Honor Code
Release Date: July 24, 2018

About Joseph Doyle

Joe has been known to have two hands with which to both play games and write reviews. When his hands are not doing those, he will put books, musical instruments, and other fun things in them.


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PS4 Review - 'Narcosis'

by Joseph Doyle on Nov. 23, 2018 @ 4:00 a.m. PST

Narcosis is a survival story set at the sunless depths of the Pacific Ocean. Stranded after an accident with little light and few tools, an industrial diver takes desperate steps to surface before his oxygen — and sanity — give out.

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Humans have been living in groups since the dawn of time — and with good reason. We disperse tasks between people of different skill sets, create relationships with others more easily, and have safety in numbers. When you take this away from someone, when you deprive a person of the ability to relate and know security, you create fear. Narcosis, published and developed by Honor Code, Inc., strips you down to isolation in several ways, leaving the player heaving and afraid. The player is clad in nothing but a clunky Bioshock-esque scuba suit and surrounded by the dark depths of the sea floor, so Narcosis inspires fear through its realistic and haunting portrayal of a lifestyle under the sea gone awry.

You begin the game in a simple tutorial where you set up the player with all the controls while world-building with the type of job your player has. You're placed in a pool in your suit while your instructor refreshes your memory on how to use all your suit's abilities. It feels similar to when you see montages of astronauts preparing to venture into space. However, in space, you see and become part of the night sky that you and the rest of humanity has been staring at in awe for millennia. Narcosis gives you no such familiarity. You exit the safety of the training facility for the bottom of the ocean, and you're surrounded by creatures that are alien to your understanding of biology while your vision is restricted to a few feet around you. You progress, exploring the murky depths of the seabed, trying to search for survivors of a severe earthquake, and make sure your oxygen levels don't spike out of control when you see the unsettling corpses of fallen team members. You trudge from outpost to outpost, looking for oxygen, flares, or truly anything or anyone to turn up, if for nothing other than to commiserate about the hopeless circumstances.

In this way, Narcosis is little more than a walking simulator. Your character has something of a bowie knife to knock away small- to mid-sized predators, and a thrust mechanic to bridge gaps, but not much else. This strengthens the helplessness of the situation because you really are just a person in a suit, overcome by death, loneliness, and fear of the unknown. One could argue that the game almost caters to this realism too heavily, with the head movement being frustrating in its design, the camera moving around the helmet as opposed to being stationary, and having to look at the bottom to check you and your suit's current stats (flares, oxygen, and thrust — essentially the game's UI). This, coupled with the glacial movement speed of the character, is certainly off-putting (and perhaps nauseating to some) but completely in line with the game's themes and setting.

Narcosis seeks to put you in a situation that in real life would certainly give you these discomforts because being alone, thousands of feet below sea level, in a claustrophobic space would be, at risk of understating the feeling, upsetting. That's without the haunting psychological elements in the game. Honor Code nails the feeling the player character must have in a striking and effective way, creating an unfiltered feeling of unease simply through the character's movement. This, compounded with the horror elements thrown quite literally in your face, make this a new and frightening experience for the player.

With the small amount of simple abilities the player is afforded in Narcosis, the gameplay flows naturally, with only a few buttons and the joysticks. With the aforementioned camera slowly sliding through the mask, the controls, like the player's movement, become a little clunky. While this does enhance the feeling of the game, it leads to the player being distracted from what's going on around them. Your head swivels to see what's happening, and then you have to get reoriented to the way the camera controls. This is heightened by the blind spots created by the helmet's edges, leaving the player wanting to turn their head downward, only to have most of their vision obscured. This grows tedious early on in the game, which could easily lead players to drop Narcosis rather quickly. However, acclimation to this control scheme pays off, with the camera firmly in control within an hour of play. While a non-VR version of the game was used for this review, it certainly seems like it would be enhanced with the Oculus version in both immersion and controls. Unfortunately, the controls in this version are difficult to grasp — and stomach, at points — and the player ends up having to push through, luckily with a pretty good payoff.

When the player gains control of the camera, they see very little around them — maybe a towering coral reef, some rocks ahead to jump on, or a small portion of the corridor you're walking through, but that'll be about it. Honor Code uses the depths of the sea to its advantage, heavily restricting the visuals of the player in a convincingly creepy way, reminiscent of the fog lines used in the early Silent Hill titles. Sure, the flashlight will show some shapes around you, and a well-placed flare will lead you the right way, but vision is kept to what's needed rather than painstakingly harped on. With this, the environments don't need heavily developed textures or the like; as long as the rocks are craggy, the sand is smooth, and the squids are slimy, everything's hunky dory — and they are. On the other hand, the character's in-helmet UI is incredibly clear and animated well. It's leagues ahead of the pause menu and hearkens back to a PS2-era James Bond options screen.

The use of sound in Narcosis is sparse and well thought-out. Unlike in space, space does travel through water but becomes thick and drone-like, a soundtrack of eeriness in and of itself. As you explore the depths, the churning of the sea is broken only by your thudding footsteps, a brisk reminder to the player that they're alone and surrounded by the chilling unknown. While this by itself is an impressive feat, the restraint shown during other portions of the game should likewise be lauded. For example, while exploring a base, you stumble upon the living quarters of the scientists who lived there. As you explore, there are several jump-scares, including one where the lights go out and a squid jumps in your face. No shrieks of violins or piercing, rumbling brasses play over this, only the heavy breathing of the player's character and a stiff inhale as the creature rushes you. The immersion created by the sound in Narcosis is inspiring, stunning, and terrifying. 

This review began before with a parallel to early man, so why stop now? Narcosis, in its own way, brings humanity's drive for survival to the forefront of the player's mind, showing that the will to live is truly a harrowing war of attrition. The game is unrelenting in its goal of putting you into the shoes of someone haunted by the depths of the sea, both figuratively and literally. The story is simple but well-written, with even the flavor text of the fallen co-workers showing humanity in a couple of sentences each. The visuals are good, the controls are formidable, and the audio is stunning. Sure, the gameplay and story can be a little slow, and the narration is somewhat gauche and not well mixed, but these are minor issues in an otherwise intriguing, original game that shows the potential of human helplessness in a visceral and highly informative way. Narcosis is a mystery that plays on how little we know about our own world, as the game aggressively reminds us with elements of supernatural terror.

Score: 8.5/10

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