Diving Into The Claustrophobic VR Abyss
by Tim Turi on Apr 22, 2014 at 10:11 AM
Publisher: Honor Code
Developer: Honor Code
Rating: Mature
Platform: PC

When thinking about the vastness of the ocean, claustrophobia isn’t likely the first thing that comes to mind. Strap yourself in hundreds of pounds of metal with only a tiny porthole to look through, send yourself to the ocean floor, and you begin to understand. Narcosis is a harrowing, underwater first-person experience that taps the isolating power of the Oculus Rift VR headset.

Narcosis is developed by a new team without an official studio name (they’re going by Narcosis Team for now). The collective’s lack of credentials didn’t distract me when I strapped on the Oculus Rift and plunged to the bottom of the sea during a recent hands-on demo in a well-lit restaurant with loud music playing.

All these sensory distractions are muted as soon as I slip on the headphones and headgear (it can be played without VR as well). The game boots up and I’m standing on the rocky ocean floor with only a weak flashlight to illuminate the terrain ahead of me. Plants float in place as small schools of fish dart around ahead of me. I take a few steps using a wired 360 controller. I’m able to boost ahead, stab with a diving knife, toggle my light, toss a flare, and that’s about it. Movement is purposefully restrictive – no strafing allowed. This limited mobility, along with the ability to scan my surrounding with the Oculus Rift, creates an authentic sensation of lumbering leagues beneath the waves in a metal casket. 

The isolating effect of the Oculus Rift, headphones, and limited porthole of the diving suit immediately makes me feel uneasy. Various numbers and gauges flicker in the interior HUD’s first-person view. My heart rate is normal, but my oxygen is steadily depleting before I take my first steps. Taking damage causes your heart rate to increase, which eats up oxygen faster. Lose enough air and you’ll begin to hallucinate. Slowly plodding through the water in what Team Narcosis refers to as the Walking Coffin is a surreal experience. Swimming fish pass by inches before my eyes thanks to the Oculus Rifts’ dual screens, causing me to reflexively flinch.

Later on my journey I spot a bizarre, multi-limbed creature patrolling an open area. I flick the switch of a nearby generator, which turns a light on in the distance. The menacing creature darts towards the new light source and circles it like an obsessed moth. I trek on, armed with the information that light can distract my deep-sea predators.

A handful of standout moments fill my brief time with Narcosis Team’s eight-plus hour horror adventure. I cross a collapsing length of pipe, using my boost ability to narrowly avoid falling into the abyss. I spot the standing corpse of a fellow suited human who suffered a grisly fate thanks to a facehugger-like creature. I even fend off one of these clinging threats with my knife, but not before it leaves a few cracks in my glass porthole (if these spidering fissures connect you’re dead). The demo concludes as I enter an underwater facility, fading to black just as the shadow of a massive leviathan darkens the glassed corridor.

The Oculus Rift is no stranger to horror games, but Narcosis is the best-looking of its breed I’ve played, even with the standard-definition developer kit. Most VR titles like Dreadhalls and Alone are little more than rough yet effective prototypes that prove the device excels and delivering scares. While Narcosis is looking good compared to these early proofs of concept, it joins a wave of upcoming Oculus Rift-supported horror titles including Routine and Among the Sleep. While I liked what I played, Narcosis Team will have to deliver on its unique, underwater setting and light-based encounter evasion to stand out from the pack.

Narcosis shows promise for both the horror genre and VR space. The moody, ponderous deep-sea exploration feels like a cross between Dear Esther’s linear, voiced narrative and Amnesia’s intense monster encounters. Hopefully it delivers thrills when it releases on PC next year, and Narcosis Team can literally make a name for itself.