Making a Lovecraftian story is a lot like making a burger: it’s easy in theory, but to make a great one takes skill. Plenty of writers, filmmakers, and game developers have attempted to tinker with that classic formula of forbidden knowledge and unknowable creatures, and Stirring Abyss is bringing that approach to the bottom of the ocean. We were able to get a preview of the game’s demo during the Steam Autumn Games Festival, and here’s what we found.
The story takes a familiar approach to eldritch horror. During the Cold War, you play as the crew of the USS Salem: a submarine that has sunk besides a long-forgotten ruin. Thus, it’s up to you (and whatever crew you can find) to fix the submarine and escape while you still can. It’s a game where you have to juggle scavenging, air supply, and fighting monsters of the deep, all while you piece together what has happened. The demo has four story missions, but the full game promises twelve, some additional side content, and an additional endless mode for the machoistic.
As a game, Stirring Abyss has players take expeditions on the seabed to find crew members and supplies, all while monsters of the deep try to kill them. If you have any experience with turn-based strategy, it will be pretty familiar. There’s a great, pulpy aesthetic that’s fitting for the source material, and it gels pretty well with the gameplay. Alongside the expeditions is the sub itself, working as a home that can be fixed up for more abilities and the chance to escape. One of the more interesting options you have during expeditions is the sub itself. Since the USS Salem is a powerful sub, it has its own share of abilities during missions. For instance, you can shine a spotlight into the world to remove the fog of war and properly prep for what’s around you. However, many abilities can make the sub lose more power, forcing an additional wrinkle into the game’s strategy.
Like other games inspired by Lovecraft, an insanity meter plays a part with your crew too which gets higher when they deal with horrifying monsters and low oxygen. The fact that you’re told the Eldritch’s turns when you can’t see them is effective, adding to the paranoia of it all. While the sea beasts you fight in the depths are unsettling, they aren’t the scariest part of the demo. They can kill you easier if you aren’t careful, and have some tricks up their sleeves when you aren’t prepared.
But like other ways to mechanize insanity, it’s easy to get used and becomes another statistic your crew members deal with. But the fears regarding oxygen and of suffocating under the sea is very effective. The possibility of drowning is upsetting, and taps into fear way more than a spooky fish monster. It’s also a great way to make timed missions, because there aren’t a lot of ways to reclaim oxygen in missions. The clock’s always ticking down, and it forces you to think smarter.
Sinking Abyss isn’t reinventing the wheel and doesn’t need to thanks to how it uses its atmosphere. It nails the terror that comes from its premise. Oxygen is running low and you’re far away from home, monsters under the sea are wrecking your crew, and you’re unsure how long you can last. It’s an anxiety-ridden demo, and one not for the faint of heart. The demo might have some bugs and its turn-based difficulty isn’t for everyone, but I’m very curious to see the entire game. Its foundation is very good, and it knows how scary its premise can be. If turn-based strategy and Lovecraftian horror is your match-made in heaven, it might be a good time to check the demo and the game’s first four missions.
Stirring Abyss will be released on October 29, and its demo will be playable until the end of the Steam Game Festival on October 13.
About Gavin Herman
Gavin Herman is a critic with experience in editing, journalism and video game PR. He's still too afraid to ask what this Fortnite thing is all about.