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Narcosis

Score: 86%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Honor Code, Inc.
Developer: Honor Code, Inc.
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: Survival Horror/ Adventure/ Puzzle

Graphics & Sound:

Survival horror games have evolved to create a wide genre, so wide that it allegedly includes a game like Narcosis. We’d argue that Narcosis is more of an art piece that is horror-tinged than a pure horror game, but more on that later. The evidence for this is mainly in the visual design and art direction of Narcosis, something that jumps out on console, but would be even more visceral in the supported VR versions on PC. There’s not much physical challenge here, and not even many deep puzzles to solve. The premise of walking through a world transformed after disaster wouldn’t be at all compelling without lots of time and attention paid to design.

There aren’t elaborate cut-scenes and CG to tell the story of how you ended up trapped in a diving suit, miles below the ocean. One minute you’re walking through the underwater world and the next minute everything goes to hell. Instead of hoping players will ignore the interface and heads-up display, Narcosis wants to keep bringing you back to the reality that your cumbersome suit is all that’s standing between you and a watery death. In one early scene, you’ll come across a co-worker whose faceplate was smashed, then quickly encounter the giant spider-crab looking creature responsible for the damage. You can’t help but watch your oxygen reserve shrinking, and you’ll quickly learn to minimize contact with bodies littering your former workplace because your fear causes you to hyperventilate, burning precious air that much quicker.

The sound design deserves special mention. There’s a monologue running throughout the game that you might think would be disruptive, but it provides a needed calm between dramatic episodes. It also adds a lot of character, giving the faceless protagonist of the game a voice and a purpose. Most of all, the dialogue lends more depth to the setting and the razor’s edge between tedium and danger that defined the highly stressful job he was doing prior to the accident. Contrast his calm, almost bored dialogue with strange noises just out of your field of vision, droning alarms, and garbled comms from other survivors you’re desperately trying to reach before they take the only remaining sub to the surface, and you’ve got the recipe for something that sticks with you long after you put down the controller.


Gameplay:

The term "walking simulator" has been used to describe games like Dear Esther, that have a strong bias for story immersion and exploration rather than combat, logic problems, or intricate navigation / platform physics. The gaming world, to its credit, has responded well to these story-driven games. It reminds us of the evolution of comics from thin, advertising-filled pulps to thick graphic novels printed on expensive paper. Narcosis is a really lavish way to present what is basically a story about a man walking through the wreckage of his undersea base, haunted by the bodies of his colleagues, and threatened by the environment and some of its denizens.

There’s a clear objective in the game, and a relatively clear path to reach it. Exploring the wrecked base presents some twists and turns, but it’s not a hard layout to understand. What sets you back is the panic. You’ll come across bodies and start to hyperventilate, which immediately burns more oxygen than you can afford to burn. Narcosis is divided into a series of chapters, but your meager oxygen supply doesn’t reset between them. The game rewards you for exploring by showing you more personal details about your colleagues, once you retrieve their IDs, but then also penalizes you with bouts of fear when you approach their bodies. There are obstacles in your path and creatures you’ll encounter that can sometimes be avoided. Fighting is the worst part of the experience, not because it’s unrealistic, but because Narcosis has plenty of drama without the fighting. Just the pressure of surviving and overcoming the massive odds against you is plenty gripping.


Difficulty:

The division of Narcosis into chapters and the frequent autosave mechanism means that you won’t have too much to replay if things go wrong. And things definitely go wrong. Finding oxygen is a constant struggle. You can generally take a bit off the suits of your fallen comrades, but at the penalty of some panicked breathing, which kind of defeats the purpose of grabbing the oxygen. Otherwise, you’ll only have the occasional "hunt and find" objective. There’s not really a "puzzle" component to the game, no brain-twisting obstacles. Generally what blocks you is literally a huge object that you’ll need to walk around, or do some light jumping.

Being true to the premise and setting of the game means that all the physical activities are leaden and clunky, by design. Being in this pressurized tank that passes for a suit isn’t supposed to feel graceful. Every step you make, much less jumping or swinging a knife at an aggressive creature, is a little torturous. It’s not that playing this makes you a masochist, but you’ll need to appreciate the roleplay of it all, we’d say. If you’re looking for a thoughtful exploration of life on a knife’s edge, and how we react in the face of catastrophe, Narcosis is a great piece of work. If you’re looking for some action and empowerment, this isn’t your game.


Game Mechanics:

The great thing about adapting the first-person POV to more genres is that it becomes very intuitive. Once you played a first-person shooter, you were ready for a first-person RPG, and now for first-person survival horror. Certainly that feeling of being crammed in a big, heavy tin can wouldn’t be complete without sluggish controls, and Narcosis has plenty of those. Turning to look at things actually just turns your head inside the suit, which makes you feel like you’ve got a constant blind spot. Only when you actually turn your body can you get the full, normal field of vision. Basic jumps can be achieved within a limited range, and otherwise you’re just moving around the world interacting with objects.

The thing about Narcosis is that as much as it is an interesting game to play on console, it feels like a game made to play on VR. The idea of immersion is so central to the game’s ethos that it seems a shame not to go even farther into the experience. It’s already easy enough to put yourself into the mind of the poor guy stuck on the bottom of the ocean, so imagine how compelling the story would be in complete immersion. Sure, this isn’t your daddy’s survival horror. It’s more cerebral and really just about survival in a horrible scenario, not the blood and zombies we’ve come to expect. Getting out alive is still the point, but so is staying sane and not letting your fear conquer you along the way.


-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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