Make no mistake, humans are an inherently social creature. If you don’t believe me, take a look at one of the fundamental themes of the survival horror genre. Whether you are exploring a remote space settlement or searching a dilapidated mansion, most likely you’re reconnoitering the location in isolation, detached from most forms of social contact. The recent release of Narcosis for the Xbox One adds another fertile context to the list- planting players at the bottom on the ocean floor. Largely, it’s a splendid concept, with the beauty of the deep juxtaposed with a persistence sense of peril and the lifeless bodies of your crewmates strewn about.
The game’s introduction details the plight of the game’s protagonist, Kip Mattas, an industrial diver tasked with harvesting frozen methane, a benign natural fuel source. But when an earthquake and a series of aftershocks strike, the team’s underwater habitats are demolished, forcing survival inside a hulking dive suit. While the goal of making it to the surface and rescuing any survivors is, making that a reality seems like a longshot when you’re only have a knife, a few flares, and a persistently dwindling oxygen supply keeping you alive.
Wisely, resource management isn’t a player’s chief concern in Narcosis. Along the fundamentally linear pathways, you’ll be able to resupply, frequently seizing an O2 tank from a fallen comrade or several light-emitting devices from the liberal scattering of crates. Sure, wandering off the beaten path to search for collectables can squander oxygen, while anxiety increases your intake, but if you play prudently, supplies aren’t too scarce. Instead, you’re more pressuring concern is keeping your composure against an insistent assault of environmental adversities. When panic kicks in the protagonist experiences hallucinations, producing some of the game’s most salient moments.
And while Narcosis delivers the occasional jump scare, it’s a sense of dread that dominates the four-hour journey. Not only are the subaquatic environments habitually claustrophobic but the title also conveys confinement via the game’s dive suit mechanics. Save for a thruster boost that’s constrained by a cool-down timer, movement is convincingly protracted, with each step conveying the weight of the equipment. The title certainly knows how to foreshadow fright, with a tremor or a horde of bolting spider crabs signaling imminent danger.
A button press swings your blade in front of you, but don’t expect Narcosis’ trek to be rooted in action. Although you’ll face a number of aggressive sea creatures, you’ll just as often want to go into hiding, as you’re rather susceptible to attack. The more tenacious threat is the craggy ocean floor with a misstep or missed boost plunging players into peril. A more irritating issue is the protagonist’s tendency to get stuck on the environment, which happened twice during my playthrough, forcing me back to a remote checkpoint.
Another issue is the game’s framerate, which can break the sense of immersion when it drops below appropriate thresholds. But visually, the game offers an adept interpretation of subaquatic areas, highlighted by biofluorescent fish, eerily lit beams of light, and fragile strands of swaying flora. Human life doesn’t fair quite a well, exhibiting lesser amounts of detail. Sonically, the title employs ambient dins rather that melodious tracks, stressing a sense of unease.
But largely these transgressions can be forgiven for players hoping for some mind-bending experiences. Cleverly, the developers know the tenets of the first-person experience, and when they shatter expectations, Narcosis can be amazing experience. And while some might take issue with the monotonous, platitude-producing voiceover, the game’s conclusion pays vast dividends to those who stick it out. Yes, there’s a twist and it’s exceedingly effective.
While some might criticize Narcosis for its lack of replayability, the condemnation isn’t quite valid. After all, it would be absurd to knock a movie or television show because it couldn’t stand up to repeat viewings. As such, Narcosis should be judged for the impact it creates on that single playthrough, which is one of the more potent experiences in recent memory.
Narcosis was played on the Xbox One with review code provided by the publisher.