Narcosis embraces what makes VR horror fun, but doesn’t do much more than that

We go hands-on with Narcosis, a horror game developed by indie studio Honor Code, at E3.

Virtual Reality has got a long way to go before it becomes a truly viable mainstream gaming platform. And while that process is still years — and generations, probably — away, we still lurk in VR’s first generation of experiences. One of the experiences — genres, more so — that seem to be a natural fit for it is horror. The genre, which seems to be more popular in VR gaming than it is in mainstream gaming these days, has already showcased how well it fits in with Virtual Reality, and so as I geared up to try out Narcosis — an indie VR horror game developed by Honor Code — I braced for jump scares, creepy moments, and a spooky atmosphere. Disappointingly, I didn’t get a lot of that.

That’s not to say the demo the developers were showing off of Narcosis at E3 was bad, as it wasn’t. Perhaps, as I may have expected, my expectations were raised a little too high following SOMA’s debut last year, combined with a rough demoing area — aka, E3 itself.

Narcosis throws you underwater as you take control of an industrial diver who’s become stranded on the seafloor. As he remains trapped, he’s slowly losing his sanity. It’s a premise that isn’t necessarily new to games, but it’s one that makes way for what Narcosis hopes to offer up — scares and atmosphere. As I only played two levels of the game, not a lot was really showcased in terms of narrative here, and that was fine — I understood the premise, and knew what I generally had to do.

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The problem here, however, is that throughout my 15 to 20 minutes of Narcosis, I just didn’t feel all that engaged. There wasn’t a whole lot going on as I traversed the gloomy seabed, slowly trying to figure out what my goal was in the levels. And while I was met with a creepy atmosphere throughout, there wasn’t much else to really get the blood running or the heart beating.

The first level had a focus on exploration — something that a lot of VR games are doubling down on right now. To great success, too. The world that’s been created here in Narcosis is beautiful in its own right, and I can feel that Virtual Reality is a great fit for what the developers are making here, but I just didn’t feel all that engaged in my quest to explore. Once you get past the fact you’re submerged in this experience of being underwater — looking for ways to get out and escape your madness — it all felt a little generic for my liking.

Gameplay in Narcosis was fairly standard fair, as well. You have thrusters that allow you to traverse the area a little quicker, you can swipe (which is, more or less, for attacking enemies before they jump on you), and you explore. As well as this, there’s a focus on keeping your oxygen levels at a stable rate, which is done through exploration and the collection of oxygen canisters. The twist here, though, is that when your character comes in to contact with anything creepy or an enemy, his oxygen intake goes down much quicker than usual. This makes encounters and areas a little more exciting and dependent on you keeping an eye on your oxygen, though I generally didn’t have much of a problem with that.

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The problem with these areas, though, was that even while my character was having a bit of a heart attack, I didn’t find them too creepy or scary. I jumped once, which was when an enemy got the jump on me, but other than that — and, to be fair, this could be down to the fact I’m extremely accustomed (and a big fan) of the horror genre and their tropes — I wasn’t particularly scared or creeped out during my time with the game.

Considering Narcosis is still in development and I only played a small chunk of the game, reservations have to be made about how the game will eventually turn out. I think there’s a lot of potential here — the setting and location is great, throwing off a certain SOMA-esque vibe throughout, and I’m intrigued enough about the narrative to have continued to think about it for a good while after I finished the demo.

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As well as this, I just don’t think VR is all that easy to demo at a massive trade show like E3. This was similar in my experience with Resident Evil 7’s VR demo, in which the experience was often subdued because of the many noises and sounds beaming through my headphones from the hall, continuing to take me away from the experience I was trying to immerse myself in. Had I been in perhaps my own room or something like that while playing Narcosis, I at least feel like I would have been able to appreciate its intricacies and ideas a little more than I did.

While it seemed like standard fair, at least for now, I’m still intrigued to see how Narcosis evolves over the year. Similarly, I feel like VR suits it to a tee, and I’m excited to try it out again some time down the track.

Narcosis is set to launch on PC, Mac, and Oculus Rift later this year.

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