It's not often you get to play a horror game that feels like it was tailor-made to your own peculiar fears. Though it's not nearly as frequent as the 'I'm missing the final exam for a class I've never attended' nightmare, the idea of floating helplessly in dark waters - just as some creature in the distance starts viciously swimming towards me - is my most deep-rooted fear. And wouldn't you know it: Narcosis, a first-person survival game headed to the PC and Oculus Rift this April, is all about an industrial diver trapped at the bottom of the ocean, along with all kinds of aquatic lifeforms that have never seen sunlight, and an increasingly tenuous grip on his own sanity. By the end of my demo, my palms were so sweaty you'd think I'd just gotten back from some deep-sea diving of my own.
Developed by Honor Code, a team divided between California and France, Narcosis follows an as-yet-unnamed diver working at a research lab on the sea floor. After a sudden catastrophe separates him from the rest of his colleagues, the diver goes into full-on survival mode, unsure where his crewmates are, unable to make contact with the surface, and well aware that he's got a limited supply of oxygen to breathe in his bulky, Big Daddy-esque diving suit. As if the pitch-black darkness of the deepest ocean depths wasn't anxiety-provoking enough, the diver is also plagued by hallucinations brought on by the stress of the situation and a lack of clean air. And let me tell you: when you're playing Narcosis in VR, you're right there alongside the diver praying that you find a way out of this horrifying scenario real fast.
With the Oculus Rift strapped to your head, there's a physical sense of heft to your timid exploration of the lab's flooded hallways, mirroring the enclosed feeling of your in-game visor and the weight of your slow-moving, propulsion-system suit. You never get a break from feelings of isolation and claustrophobia, with the only 'company' being the diver's solemn narration of the thoughts racing through his mind at the time. The only tools you've got are a knife to discourage hostile seabed fauna, a dimming flashlight, and a limited supply of flares that give you a brief, bright glimpse of your surroundings - something you may ultimately regret, especially if there's a person-sized Japanese Spider Crab scuttling nearby.
Narcosis is also smart enough to keep any jump scares to a minimum, instead building the tension up and up until you feel like you can't take it anymore. Instead of tossing things in your face accompanied by a loud violin chord, Narcosis' best scares are designed to initially startle then deeply unsettle you. You might be familiar with the environment warping effects of Layers of Fear (opens in new tab) or Batman: Arkham Knight, where you might see some things that weren't there before if you've got the courage to turn around at all. The first sign that my diver was cracking up was the sudden appearance of an empty diving suit directly next to me, seemingly peering over my shoulder after I attempted to dislodge a precious oxygen tank from a doorway. Meanwhile, in what I think was the real world, I was accosted by a cuttlefish zipping out of the darkness, giving me a faceful of its repulsive suckers and a good look at its grotesque beak before I sliced it up like it owed me a large sum of money.
If those kinds of occurrences aren't stressful enough, you also need to keep a vigilant eye on your suit's oxygen levels. And to make things trickier, Narcosis employs a system similar to Amnesia, in which keeping your gaze locked on intrinsically disturbing sights (like the aforementioned phantom suit) will sharply increase your intake of oxygen, thus directly depleting the resource that dictates your continued survival. At one point, I was so immersed in Narcosis' dark depths, I legitimately wondered if the Oculus was somehow detecting my disturbed breathing and matching it up with my character's (not actually a feature of the Rift - yet, anyway).
All those moments of tension culminated in quite the freaky finale. I opened up an elevator door to find four empty suits waiting for me, and with nowhere else to go, I stepped inside (mumbling "Hi fellas!" to ease my fears). I turned around to see if I could press a button and get the hell out of there, only to find that this elevator seemed to be stuck in an infinite loop, and I was unable to even look at the way I came in. Eventually, after spinning well over 360 degrees, I was suddenly staring down a hallway lined with even more vacant bodysuits. Suddenly, a strange, seaweed-like substance started to grow over the suits, as well as my own visor, until I blacked out, and the demo mercifully ended.
It's hard to say if I'll have the wherewithal to brave Narcosis' depths at release, but I can already attest to the quality of its atmosphere and unsettling visual trickery. Perhaps it'll help me overcome my deep water fears - or maybe I'll just end up curled on the floor in the fetal position with an Oculus Rift still strapped to my face, weeping softly while humming "Beyond the Sea". If you've ever looked in terror at one of the positively alien-looking creatures that actually inhabit the bottom of the real-world sea, Narcosis should be a VR horror experience to remember.