I’ve been a proponent of the “walking simulator” genre of video games, despite the negative reaction many people have to to the style of gaming that offers very little in terms of gameplay. Developer Honor Code’s debut title, “Narcosis” falls under this category, and while it offers a very thought-provoking way to tell a story with a very clever ending, the journey to get there is a bit of a chore that makes it difficult to recommend (at least on console).
You play as a deep sea diver working at an underwater mining operation that goes horribly awry. Earthquakes have destroyed a large portion of the mining facilities and killed the majority of the workers. Your character is desperately trying to get back to the surface before running out of oxygen or getting killed by the many sea creatures lurking at the bottom of the ocean.
One of the vital aspects of a game like “Narcosis” is its atmosphere, and this one delivers that in spades. The underwater buildings offer an intensely bleak setting that magnify your character’s isolation and peril in a way that is very unsettling. In addition, walking across the sea floor is equally as harrowing due, in part, to the limited field of vision and low lighting available. It truly gives a sense of danger at all times. This is definitely a game that I wish I had been able to experience in VR, especially since it feels developed for that platform. I feel like I missed out on the full experience playing this on console.
The gameplay here is very sparse and not nearly as engaging as its environments. Your character walks around in an atmospheric diving suit, which naturally forces you to walk around at a very slow pace. Obviously, this is part of the immersion of walking around underwater, but it got old rather quickly, which is saying something considering the game is only three hours long. Thankfully, you’re given the ability to thrust forward and backward with some jets attached to the suit, but there’s limited use of this mechanic as it has a cooldown. Your only weapon at your disposal is a pocketknife used for melee attacks, but you do have an arsenal of flares that can be used to distract creatures away from your path if needed. What frustrated me the most with the controls however, was nearly a deal-breaker for me. As hard as I looked through the options menu, I could not find the ability to invert the camera for vertical alignment. While I understand that I might be in the minority of people that prefer to play this way, it made my experience a maddening one that, I believe, could have been very easily alleviated. This coupled with what I can only describe as a clunky control scheme kept me from having a good time.
Look, I understand that this kind of game is supposed to be about the story and the atmosphere, which it is. But I wish the experience had been more enjoyable leading up the genuinely surprising finale. The developers were trying to make this not feel “video gamey” by not holding your hand or giving you a health meter, which is something I genuinely appreciate. But on more than one occasion I was taken out of the experience because I simply had no clue what to do next. Yes, trial and error is a great thing in games, but not to the point of it being a complete distraction from the better parts of the game, especially when your load times take so long to get me back into the action.
It sounds like I’m being completely negative on this game, but the narrative is actually something quite special that almost made me forget about my frustrations with the gameplay. It takes a lot to truly surprise me with a story, and a day after completing “Narcosis”, the ending is still resonating with me and making me think about the experience in a different light. Things are not quite what they seem for more than one reason, and (for reasons I can’t say without spoiling) you’re given an option after the credits to experience a summary of the story in unique fashion that I’m honestly never experienced before.
“Narcosis” is a story that is more than worth the visit, but the fun factor was sorely missing on the way to the truly memorable moments of the game. If you are willing to be patient for the payoff, this is an easy recommend; but if you’re easily frustrated, this isn’t the entry to the genre where I would suggest you start. It’s a story that I hope more people will witness, but I worry that not enough will survive the trip.