I’ve been finding myself under the sea a lot lately. It scares me, the thought of all of that water above me—a complete stranger in an inhospitable environment, surrounded by strange creatures that probably want to eat me. Narcosis plays exactly to those thalassophobic fears that I could only face in video games. But with so many underwater games asking us to brave the depths, Narcosis has trouble distinguishing itself.
You are a worker on a deep sea habitat walking around in your half-ton titanium dive suit when catastrophe strikes. All of those stuck in the habitats were killed, while those lucky enough to be out in dive suits were spared the immediate catastrophe. The dive suits allow you to walk the ocean floor, but they don’t offer much freedom. They are slow and claustrophobic—described as “walking coffins” on more than one occasion.
Throughout Narcosis you play as a character who has a tenuous grasp on reality. The initial shock of seeing your colleague die, and the stress of being in the high tension environment wreaks havoc on the playable character’s psyche. Very shortly after the catastrophe, you are subjected to hallucinations. These hallucinations manifest in several different ways and their intensity changes drastically. Sometimes they are even able to kill you if you succumb to them. This leads to some interesting and surreal gameplay moments, but all too often these moments are wasted on cheap jump scares.
While playing Narcosis you will have to be on the lookout for oxygen canisters. O2 is what keeps you alive, and you will die without it. Early on the problem of finding oxygen is apparent, but as Narcosis progresses it seems as though the scarcity of oxygen was an afterthought, and you can’t slowly plod more than a few feet before you run across more.
The environments in Narcosis are perhaps its most interesting points. Seeing the two habitats that have recently succumbed to the ocean is an amusing adventure, but unfortunately, severe lack of interactability with most of the world makes it feel like you’re merely a passive observer. Most of the time you will be slowly walking from point a to point b with little reason to stop beyond pulling a switch, or walking out of the way of enemies. The few times you are required to figure out how to progress, it’s nothing more than flipping switches or finding key cards. Occasionally, you will be required to progress through surreal environments as a result of your weakening grasp on reality, but these moments manifest as mundane jumping puzzles, or enemy avoidance.
You’ll encounter quite a few enemies on your adventure—mostly underwater life that somehow sees you as canned dinner with all those tasty fleshy bits in your dive suit. Fortunately, you do have a knife to put up a fight if you are grabbed. That said, you don’t really fight so much as defend yourself against the multitude of creatures down around the habitats that seem intent on taking a bite out of you, despite you obviously being something that isn’t inside of their food chain. And that’s sort of the problem with Narcosis—it doesn’t know to set itself in a believable world, instead altering reality for whatever whim it has at the moment. If these whims were interesting in some way it could be forgiven, but Narcosis rarely does anything truly interesting with any of its setups.
Narcosis is short, and mostly uninteresting, with my heartbeat only getting more rapid due to cheap jump scares—of which there are a few. Despite the overtly horror atmosphere, your character seems to have a strangely callous attitude about the people you come across, if the in-game logs are indication. I’m not sure if it’s an issue with the translation, or if it’s some sort of intentional perspective, but the flavor entries for your dead colleagues are often darkly nihilistic, or so grim they almost read like someone parodying such sights—not someone who is currently living their horrors.
Narcosis supports virtual reality modes with the Vive and the Rift through Steam VR, but it, unfortunately, doesn’t have PSVR support for its more recent PlayStation 4 release. This is a shame, as Narcosis is absolutely set up for it. Though, if you do have the PC version and want to try it out in VR, be warned: I found it to be quite motion sickness inducing, though I find my tolerance to be on the lower end of the spectrum.
Narcosis isn’t a total flop. If you love underwater horror, or even the prospect of just exploring a wrecked habitat, it may entertain you for a bit. But there are just better options out there. Narcosis ends up drowning in its attempt at meaningful horror, instead relying on jump scares and mistaking slow, plodding gameplay for tension. While Narcosis conveys its claustrophobic underwater setting well, and the story ends up having a surprise or two, it’s not something I want to come back to, and with games like Soma, Subnautica, Event 0, and numerous others doing better what Narcosis attempts, I just can’t recommend it.