Methane dreams

Narcosis review: I think I might be feeling it

This is exactly what I imagined the bottom of the Pacific Ocean would be like.

This review was conducted on the Oculus Rift. Narcosis is also available for HTC Vive, Xbox One, and can be played on a standard PC monitor.

The diving suit I'm in is known as a walking coffin. Here I am, two miles under water, my breath fogging the inside of the glass faceplate of my helmet. I'm out of flares. It's dark, and I can't see what lies ahead. At least my oxygen is still half full, and I've settled my breathing to a manageable rate. Can I think clearly? Can I get myself out of this? There's a light ahead; I think I'll follow it.

Natural disaster

At the outset, things are going fine. You work for Oceanova, which runs a huge underwater operation that collects frozen methane from the floor of the Pacific Ocean. Players are treated to a quick control tutorial in a friendly pool before they're transported back to the dark depths.

Using the gamepad is simple; left stick moves you around and the right stick is used for snap turning. You can also look where you want to go and will move there when walking. There's no teleportation here, as it would mostly wreck the feeling of slowly running through water in a heavy suit. The HUD that sits just below your chin acts as a reference point for your brain to keep you from experiencing motion sickness. There is also keyboard and mouse support; this is first and foremost a game for a standard monitor, but you wouldn't really know it if it weren't for the dual-control schemes.

In the middle of an operation where I'm working in tandem with a crew member, there's a massive underwater earthquake that wrecks stuff. A lot of stuff. Lights go out, platforms and catwalks are destroyed, and methane begins leaking in huge quantities out of our pipelines.

My only chance of survival, and the only way to get out of my claustrophobic diving suit, is to make it back to Compass I, the underwater sea lab that is our base of operations. It isn't long before I find the front door (in the form of an airlock), but it's clear from the outside that exploring what I once called home won't be much more fun than sloshing around outside.

Clever storytelling

While you're lumbering around in the heavy suit, you'll usually only hear your own breath echoing off the inside of your helmet. The rate of your breath plays a big part in how much oxygen you consume. When encountering certain, terrifying scenarios — finding dead people, encountering large gatherings of monster crabs — the echoing breath reminds you of your plight while also adding to the overall horror.

Other than your breath, there's a voiceover that chimes in once awhile to provide a bit of exposition on what's going on. It must be stated that the voice acting in this game is fantastic. The main narrator's silky voice is a treat to listen to, and, luckily enough, you can go back and listen to the story, now in a more fully-fleshed form, once you've completed the game.

The voiceover snippets keep the story moving along and are a good reminder that you're actually headed the right way in the labyrinthine sea lab. There were a few times where I wasn't sure if I was supposed to be backtracking, only to hear a new part of the story being told.

To complement the voice acting, there is a text-only personnel dossier that is updated whenever you find a crew member. It's up to you to enter the menu and read information about the person, which gives you a better idea of what's going on. The text is clear and easy to read in VR. There are 20 crew members in total, each also with a collectible item hidden somewhere in the game. You don't have to find the collectibles, but they add a bit more information about the team member and the overall story.

Different environment, different struggle

No, the buttons don't stay mapped to the keyboard when using a gamepad. They switched back here when I touched my keyboard for a screenshot.

Narcosis is split into 14 stages, each one taking place in a different setting. In total, without finding all collectibles — I only managed to find about five in my first playthrough — it took me about four hours to get through Narcosis.

The first few stages are centered around getting you used to the controls and giving you a taste of what is to come. You're taught from the start to keep an eye on your oxygen level; there are refill stations and extra canisters littered around the map, but they're so plentiful that I had only one close encounter with suffocation once refilling my canister had become sort of an afterthought. ADR1FT, another game that deals with suffocation, albeit in a different setting, had an oxygen meter that ran out almost too fast. Here it is the opposite.

You also have a set number of flares that can be launched from your suit, and these I ran out of continuously. The game is dark, scary, and I like to see what I'm walking into. Sue me. It wasn't long before I learned to ration my flares between supply cases.

Confusing rather than puzzling

To extend your unpleasant underwater vacation there are puzzles to solve. One involved a circular room within the sea lab that was turned on its side. I had to locate numbers hidden in a grisly scene in order to unlock a door. Another puzzle had me attempting to restore power to a base by flipping switches on transformers. I kept blowing the fuse until I went out and walked around and saw voltage signs posted in a few spots.

You do have to pay attention in some parts of the game, but for the most part, it is linear enough that you can blow right through and still reach the end.

That's not to say the game is easy. There were numerous times I died by the legs and claws of enormous sea crabs or by being attacked by a fanged squid. You have a diver's knife that you can defend yourself with, but it is clumsy and getting the timing right to avoid the monsters sticking to your faceplate takes a few tries. At first I was a bit annoyed, but I remembered I was underwater in a heavy suit and my reaction time wouldn't exactly be snappy.

Overall, Narcosis more often uses confusion tactics to puzzle the player rather than actual puzzles that require figuring out. It's really quite effective; walking through the same sea lab tunnel with its winding turns, only to find yourself back at the start and the same thing behind you, chasing, is terrifying. There's a real feeling of being out of your mind, half conscious, affected by the methane and the lack of oxygen and whatever the earthquake stirred up from the depths.

Conclusion

Other than a brief pause following the tutorial, I played straight through Narcosis. I couldn't tear myself away. There were a few minor bugs and I did come across some minor annoyances — like enemy squid able to clip through their environment to better attack you — but nothing that made me stop playing. Narcosis isn't for anyone looking for a lot of action or for real brainteasers. This is more of a slow-burn horror movie that grafts elements of the surreal on top of an already claustrophobic environment.

I think I might be having some problems with reality.

There were a few parts of the game, no lie, that made me feel ill, and not from motion sickness. Later, while getting some real shut-eye, my dreams were full of dark tunnels and unseen horrors. As for the story, I can't give much away. If you play Narcosis, play it through until the end. Things get weirder and weirder, including a brief interlude in a sunny field, wrapping up with a twist I didn't see coming.

If horror-survival games in VR are your thing, Narcosis delivers a linear, weird story that is overlaid with top-notch voice acting. The claustrophobia, the environments, and the hallucinations — if that's what they really are — come together to create an experience that left this diver a bit different than he was before he started.

Pros:

  • Silky-smooth voice acting
  • Environment is affecting
  • Story is weird

Cons:

  • A few minor bugs
  • Oxygen is plentiful

Incredible

4/5

See at Oculus | Oculus Rift

See at Steam | HTC Vive and Oculus Rift

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