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Narcosis Review: Quiet and Lonely Terror

Narcosis Review: Quiet and Lonely Terror

The virtual reality gaming scene in its first year went through a predictable obsession with outer space. The deep space isolation game ADR1FT was there for Rift buyers on day one, along with dog fighting flight combat game EVE: Valkyrie, and countless others ever since. Space represents the final frontier, the great unknown, and a technological destination for countless people. But that ignores the great, dark unknown right beneath our feet this very second: the ocean.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what terrifies me more: being trapped in the middle of space, in the vacuum, with nowhere to go and nothing to save me (much like a particular character near the end of space thriller Gravity) or being trapped in the middle of the sea, surrounded by equal parts claustrophobia and impossible depths. After playing Narcosis by Honor Code, a recently released VR horror game about the quiet and lonely depths of the ocean, I’m leaning towards the latter.

Narcosis, upon first glance, immediately conjures up feelings from several other games. It’s got the methodical ‘walking simulator’ vibe of titles like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, it has a horror setting mixed with the depths of the ocean, like SOMA, and it mixes it all together with a slow-burning narrative that loosely strings you along in VR, similar to ADR1FT.

Ultimately though, Narcosis has most in common with its VR cousin, ADR1FT, than either of the other two games I listed. You’ll spend a lot of time progressing from one spot to the next, refilling your oxygen tank, exploring caverns, and trying not to get mutilated by creepy giant spiders. However, instead of floating around in zero-G with a fancy space suit, you’ll wade through bubbles underwater as you boost across gaps and inch your way forward at a painful snail’s pace.

narcosis flare light

There are a lot of measures taken to reduce motion sickness in players (such as FOV dimming, the natural suit with a helmet framing, snap turn options, eliminating head bobbing, and plenty of other choices in the menus) but the utterly agonizing walking speed feels most like a way to artificially elongate a brief (approximately 2-3 hours) experience.

Gameplay feels like a shadow of what it could have been. There are solid ideas here with the inclusion of a thruster that lets you propel yourself forward with a burst of speed and flares that you can launch out to distract creatures. Well that and you can swing a knife. Ultimately none of that comes together in a way that makes you feel like you have any real control or power over your situation as the sluggish floatiness of everything muddles any real sense of excitement.

narcosis octopus

Sea creatures like grotesque fish and giant underwater spiders are sprinkled throughout the adventure. For the first 20 or so minutes I marveled at their presence as they scurried through the water and along rock faces. Seaweeds swayed as bubbles fluttered through the air and the overwhelming sense that I might die beneath the ocean started to press in on me. Luckily, it never got too intense to bear.

The narrative isn’t overly shocking or mind-blowing, but it’s still one of the strongest elements the game has going for it. The pacing is strong, voice acting is above average, and the occasional hallucinations add a nice touch of unpredictability to break up the monotony. The lack of other real characters to meet and interact with (for the most part) throughout the journey creates a very palpable sense of loneliness which, as it turns out, directly feeds back into the sense of deep sea isolation at the core of what makes Narcosis tick.

narcosis creepy suits

Once you get past the annoyances of the slow locomotion and uninspired gameplay, it really does start to feel like you’re there, underwater, trudging around trying to find your way. It’s a rare feat in these early years of VR to find the shine of something special, but Narcosis does have the glimmer when you stumble across those perfect moments. If you’re okay with a 2-3 hour adventure that’s a few jump scares spread out between searching for oxygen tanks with an intriguing narrative to guide you through, then Narcosis has enough going for it to be worth a look for some, but not all.

Narcosis is now available on Steam with support for both the HTC Vive, OSVR, and Oculus Rift, as well as the Oculus Home Store with Rift support. Narcosis is listed at $19.99 on both storefronts. It’s also playable outside of a headset in non-VR mode, but is best experienced in VR. Read our Game Review Guidelines for more information on how we arrived at this score.

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