Game

Review: Debris Never Breaks the Surface

Image courtesy Moonray Studios

Minor spoilers throughout, and major spoilers when noted below:

Moonray Studios’ debut title Debris was born from an initial meeting between a PhD Neuroscientist and the small Canadian development team. From this fascinating collaboration came a darkly atmospheric game that forces you to navigate through inhospitable environments while fending off deadly creatures—all while messing with your perception of reality.

Image courtesy Moonray Studios

While comparisons between recently released open world survival darling Subnautica and Debris are inevitable, they are unfair to both games. While Debris does take place underwater and there are chompy things lurking in its depths, the comparisons never break the surface: Debris is a linear, narrative driven experience. You play as Ryan, a videographer who gets trapped under Arctic ice while filming for a company called Alta. Alta’s interest in the area lies in meteoric debris that has collected under the ice, as this debris acts as a clean and extremely efficient power source.

Image courtesy Moonray Studios

Shortly after getting trapped, Ryan loses his only light and must rely on Alta-employed Sonya to help him navigate back to the surface. She’s trapped under the ice with him—but stuck in the dark and only able to interact with Ryan using a small Squid ROV—a tiny, remote control drone. Sonya’s Squid is sometimes your only source of light, and is the only thing capable of harvesting the energy given off by the debris strewn about. As Ryan, you eventually get access to a “tool” (read: gun) that allows you to shoot flares and eventually, blue bolts of energy to kill the nasty denizens of the deep. There is a constant need for power in Debris, and it is shared between Sonya and Ryan. Everything from your oxygen to your ammo relies on it—every time you shoot you a fish, or get bitten by a shark, your power goes down. You’ll need to equalize energy between Ryan and Sonya to keep them both alive. This creates a little bit of tension, but Debris tends to be more dull than scary.

Image courtesy Moonray Studios

Most of the gameplay consists of floating around ice caverns, dodging or shooting fish, and finding the way to go. The story is mostly told through ongoing conversations between Ryan and Sonya as she helps navigate them out of the icy depths. Debris manages to be atmospheric, but sadly, it’s rarely scary. There is a minimap that helps navigate, but your slow movement speed and large levels make getting lost and wandering around too easy. It’s certainly realistic to get lost for hours trying to find your way out of darkened underwater caverns, but it isn’t compelling gameplay.

Image courtesy Moonray Studios

Yesterday Moonray Studios released  a co-operative mode for Debris. The new mode allows a second player to control Sonya’s squid drone, controlling the light and harvesting power. This feels like the way Debris was initially meant to be played and was the most fun I had in my two playthroughs. It helps both the gameplay, and more importantly, helps to get across what they were trying to accomplish with the story. Communicating actively with my real-life human partner controlling the Squid ROV is much more satisfying than relying on AI, and it really should have been how Debris was released.

Major story spoilers follow:

Image courtesy Moonray Studios

I don’t usually like to spoil story elements, but for Debris, I don’t feel like I could be doing a review justice without addressing its purpose. Much like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Debris’ aim is to raise awareness of psychosis. In this case, it’s a specific form of psychosis that results immediately following a traumatic event.  Unlike Hellblade, Debris doesn’t let this be known immediately. In fact, it’s set up as a sort of “twist” as the story progresses.

Full disclosure: I totally missed it my first playthrough. When the screen came up that said that this was game was made to raise awareness for psychosis, I was absolutely confused. There are four possible endings, and the first ending I got fit very much into regular video game tropes. It turns out my character was having a delusion of grandeur, and the action heavy segments were all a delusion. I felt idiotic for missing this, and wanted to see how Debris looked in co-op mode.

During my second playthrough, I had a human-controlled Sonya, and I was looking for the clues. The choices I made had a more obvious psychological impact on Ryan, and, even cooler than Ryan’s own symptoms, was what was missing from my partner’s point of view as Sonya. To my partner playing as Sonya, it did indeed seem that Ryan was acting erratically and with increased paranoia—signs I attributed to the situation or any number of unknown plot elements.

And that’s the problem. The world isn’t really established enough—we aren’t really ever given a baseline outside of sci-fi suits underwater. Aliens, AI controlled fish, or anything else that may be set up as symptoms of psychosis looks to the casual observer as “business as usual” for video games, thus missing the point entirely—or worse, never finishing the story to get there. What’s worse, is that there is no fun incentive to get to the end as the gameplay is mostly a slog.

End spoilers

Image courtesy Moonray Studios

Debris started with a great premise,  but its execution is lacking. We just aren’t given enough glimpses of its world, and its meandering gameplay is an obstacle to its story—and therefore, to its purpose. Co-op adds fun, but without local play it’s not enough to justify double the price of admission.  Despite going for a deep-dive, Debris just never breaks surface. Debris is available now on Steam.

 

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