Still Wakes the Deep Review – Cosmic Horror Meets Grounded Survival Thriller

Any story about an astronaut going on a space mission, a scientist going to the Antarctic for research, or a lightkeeper going to an uninhabted island to take care of an otherwise abandoned lighthouse has one important thing in common: You don’t go to a secluded location in the middle of nowhere for months on end unless you’re running from something. And so from the moment you boot up Still Wakes the Deep, the lovecraftian horror game from developers The Chinese Room and publisher Secret Mode, it’s clear that the main character is haunted by something from his past. Why else would you take a job on an oil rig stationed somewhere on the endless ocean?

A clear sense of place is one of the major pieces that make Still Wakes the Deep work as well as it does. The location isn’t some random, unspecified oil rig. In fact, it’s a period piece set during the 1970s off the shores of Scotland, as the charming and authentic Scottish accents make perfectly clear. The oil rig is wholly immersive, with the waves crashing beneath you, the rain dropping from the sky endlessly, and the creaks and echos of its metallic construct. More than anything, while playing Still Wakes the Deep, I was wondering, why isn’t this a more common setting for a horror story? I mean, we get plenty of spaceships, snowed-in cabins, and other structures that make leaving impossible. But an oil rig? Apart from last year’s Stasis: Bone Totem, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that before, but it makes for the perfect location to create a truly horrific experience.

Welcome to your new home

Still Wakes the Deep and its oil rig give you plenty of cause to get anxious, even ignoring any creatures you might encounter. Due to reckless behavior from your authorities, you and your team have drilled into a mysterious core that your equipment was clearly not made for. After an initial discharge of energy that has blasted the station off its axes and injured more than a few of its crew, it all starts to go under. The whole rig is slowly sinking and tilting sideways, electricity starts to cut out, and the storm outside only gets stronger. While Still Wakes the Deep is technically what you might call a walking simulator, you really don’t do a whole lot of walking in the game. Instead, you run, jump, climb, crawl, swim, dive, and whatever else is necessary to traverse the progressively harder-to-navigate collapsing metal structure, to the point that you have to wonder if the protagonist isn’t secretly Nathan Drake on an undercover mission. As such, Still Wakes the Deep feels more like a survival thriller than a classic horror story for large chunks of it. Which doesn’t mean the experience isn’t horrifying in its own way, especially if you happen to have certain phobias, as you squeeze yourself through the smallest of enclosed spaces, balance along small planks and jump across gaps above dizzying heights, and dive through mixtures of oil and water for distances that even a trained driver will just barely manage.

And The Chinese Room is well aware that the location they’ve crafted here on its own is terrifying enough, as they take their time until the lovecraftian horror of it all comes crashing in. And since you know you’re supposed to be playing a horror game, the more time passes without anything explicitly horror happening, the more tense you get. Especially when the game introduces more and more small mechanics that can only make a potential chase sequence in which you’re running away from a monster more worrying. At one point, while you’re deep in the station in a tight space with long corridors and not much light, the game lets you know that with the press of a single button you can turn around and check what’s behind you whenever you want. Oh no. Why would I need to do that? Why do I need it now?

Everything is fine

But for all the great work done to create a feeling of unease, even if there aren’t any disgusting creatures on your screen, eventually they do come into play. As you can guess, there was more in the broken core than they bargained for. Some kind of organic material is starting to spread across the oil rig; it looks almost like a plant but is clearly made of flesh. What it does to the metal station is one thing, but what it does to your human crew… Making the comparison with John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) feels almost too easy, and yet it’s one that’s impossible to avoid. Your crew is dwindling by the minute, turning into disfigured monsters you’ll have to avoid, and while you do anything you can to survive, escape seems more impossible with every new obstacle. Whether that is the alien substance that’s overtaking the rig or its inability to keep afloat against the vicious tides, it’s an absolutely perfect mix of cosmic horror and natural disaster.

But this unidentifiable substance doesn’t just spread across anything it touches and turns humans into mindless, unrecognizable monsters; it has another important effect. It makes people close to it hallucinate. And so we’re fed pieces of Caz’s history. Not a rundown of his entire life, but glimpses of what might have made him take this job and what he’s fighting for to make it back. This is true for other characters in the story too; we get to know just enough to begin to understand why we should care. It’s a pleasure any time they have a chat, throwing shit at each other even at the worst of times, as friends tend to do. And the outstanding voice acting from everyone involved does a great job to bring the solid writing to life.

The presentation of the flashbacks is a little experimental

At the end of the day, Still Wakes the Deep is another horror walking simulator, a genre light on gameplay and heavy on narrative that’s not for everyone. But Still Wakes the Deep manages to stand out due to some strong writing, an ingenious mix of natural disaster survival thriller and cosmic horror heavily influenced by Lovecraft himself, and a fully realized and immersive location that you just can’t seem to escape from.

Nairon played Still Wakes the Deep on PC with a review code.

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