Narcosis: A state of stupor, drowsiness, or unconsciousness produced by drugs.
What a fitting definition for such an uninspired psychological thriller. Narcosis launched on PC last year in March with an Xbox One release less than two months later. Now, over a year after its debut, Honor Code brings their walking simulator to PlayStation 4. More likely to induce a state of drowsiness than fear, Narcosis misses the mark.
Walking simulators are a divisive genre, but they appeal to a specific audience. People play them for believable environments and rich narratives. Video games offer players the ability to linger, an affordance that film, television, and literature can’t provide. Different players can take the story at their own pace, absorbing as much or as little information as they want.
Environmental storytelling is one of the genre’s most integral pillars, yet it’s what Narcosis struggles with the most. The main story beats are effective enough to elicit some level of intrigue. But when the silence settles, there’s not much to absorb. Lacking much of an atmosphere, each gameplay segment between lines of dialogue overstays its welcome.
A whole lot of routine nothingness pads out the roughly 3-4 hour experience. Had Narcosis been reformatted to tell the same story within a 2 hour window, it could have hit home much harder. As it stands, it’s an inoffensive, though entirely forgettable, adventure about some underwater complex gone wrong.
Check Your Gear
Players control an Oceanova engineer commandeering a specially designed diving suit dubbed the “ADS”. Assigned to a twenty-person crew, your team extracts methane from an underwater mining complex. After rendezvousing with a crewman, a massive earthquake hits, destroying the facility. As expected, Narcosis task players with managing Oxygen levels while finding a way to the surface.
It’s a used-up plot device, but that’s fine. With strong enough characters or writing, it can dig itself out of that hole. Unfortunately, Narcosis forgets how to tell a compelling story with strong pacing while also failing to deliver on its promise as a “psychological thriller“. Had I not already seen promotional material marketing this as a such, I wouldn’t have expected it was even trying to be one. It’s just a narrative adventure game.
The mining facility’s collapse is framed within a narrated interview between the protagonist and a television or radio host of sorts. These narrated segments are the only proper forward-momentum Narcosis‘ story ever gets. Unlike its more accomplished contemporaries, What Remains of Edith Finch and Everybody’s Gone to The Rapture, spaces rarely add to the characters’ backgrounds or overarching story being told.
While some rooms here and there appear reasonably lived-in with believable adornments, most environments feel like decrepit video game levels. Filled with miscellaneous items, they add clutter rather than giving individual spaces identity. I rarely got a true sense of the crew’s day to day just from observing surroundings. The only sense of true character came from crew members’ dead bodies. Retrieving their ID’s added a mini-snippet about the individual in question. Usually a paragraph in length, even these bios rarely told enough to make me identify with anybody on the crew.
On the plus side, levels make very good use of signposting to direct players in the right direction without spelling out what needs to be done. This, at the very least, consistently pushes players to the next plot point without wasting time. Or, rather, that would have been the case had each gameplay segment not dragged on longer than it needed to.
Combat and Oxygen Levels?
In a bid to make Narcosis more marketable, it features tangible gameplay mechanics beyond occasionally light puzzle solving. There’s very basic single-button combat. With horrible animations and hit detection, encounters quickly became a chore. You only ever fight tiny Cuttlefish and Anglerfish. Gigantic crabs make up the only other enemy aside from the “paranormal” entities, though they result in one hit kills with their armored shells deflecting damage.
Aside from boring combat, players need to contend with very basic survival mechanics. The ADS suit monitors the player’s oxygen level as well as their flare count. Because environments are poorly lit, judiciously using flares lights the path forward. Some areas, though, were a little too generous with handing out flares.
The same holds true for oxygen tanks. I never once feared for my life because Narcosis litters every single area with at least one single-use oxygen tank or refill station with unlimited uses. Had Narcosis doubled down on its survival elements, even with such poorly telegraphed thrills, it still could have provided serious tension. As it stands, however, they felt unnecessary.
I encountered a single bug, which stuck my character between a pipe and adjacent mini-tower. No amount of fiddling or thrusting worked. My only options included restarting from the last save or waiting until my oxygen levels ran out. As the only glitch I personally encountered, it’s worth mentioning.
Despite Narcosis‘ end-game plot twist, it’s still an ultimately unfulfilling underwater romp. It had potential, but it squanders it with a lack of proper survival elements and thrills. With terrible combat, mediocre voice acting, and poor environmental storytelling, what does Narcosis offer? Games like this take a certain kind of individual to invest passion into making. It’s heartwarming to see small studios embrace storytelling. Unfortunately, Honor Code missed the memo that you need a strong story to make this kind of game stick.
Absorbing the underwater views can be soothing under the right mindset, but even then, you’re better off getting lost in Abzu than Narcosis.
Disclaimer: Review code provided by Publisher