I’m always impressed by how developers can make turn-based games scary. It’s a genre that is elementarily about control and playing the odds, planning strategies and seeing them through – stress is often a part of it, but fear usually isn’t. Yet, back in 2015, XCOM 1 managed to successfully tap into that “fear of the unknown” trait with their use of creepy aliens, darkened environments, and spooky sound cues to create a slightly scary atmosphere – and now, 5 years later, Sleepy Sentry’s Stirring Abyss comes knocking with bonafide eldritch terror.
An isometric 2D turn-based game, Stirring Abyss is the latest indie title from strategy publisher Slitherine as part of its K-Project initiative. A tactics game set in the early years of the Cold War, the story begins with the USS Salem – a submarine – sinking to the bottom of the sea during a mission and stranding its crew in the depths. The members of the expedition are somehow inexplicably scattered across the ocean floor with no memory of the sinking, and find the submarine flooded yet functioning nearby.
The game starts out slow, giving you control of one single diver and slowly adding another crew member at the start every mission or so. Constantly surrounded by a ring of darkness, you slowly navigate the ocean terrain fighting unusual electric jellyfishes in search of your missing crew members.
Pretty soon, you start running into less… natural things, such as humanoid fishmen, bipedal orcas, and other eldritch horrors that make X-COM: Terror from the Deep seem like child’s play. Each enemy has its own abilities and tactics, such as the Voidspawn’s cocoon attack or the Spineskulkers fishmen that flee from your divesuit’s light and fire poisoned darts from afar, and their characterisation alludes to the existence of a whole society underwater – a great worldbuilding angle also used by Firaxis’ XCOM.
While the game is a turn-based squad game, combat is considerably less tactical than other games of the genre in a classic sense. There is no cover or dashes when wearing bulky diving suits in the bottom of the ocean, so instead combat is mainly about walking closer and using abilities or weapons. There is also no physics simulation thanks to the 2D nature of the game, meaning the actual fights feel more like RPGs than XCOM or Corruption 2049.
Luckily, the game is pretty inspired when it comes to actions. Aside from the melee knife and ranged speargun attacks available to all divers, each class also has a unique ability like the Marine’s armor soaking skill or the science officer’s obscuring depth charge. Stirring Abyss also makes full use of the eldritch setting fully with the inclusion of powers and mutations – powerful abilities capable of teleporting divers, granting them temporary immunity, or replacing their arms with giant lobster claws.
Between missions, you will be going back to the USS Salem, using its power alongside resources you scavenge on missions to pump the water out of flooded compartments and grant access to new functionalities such as level-ups, crafting, and healing. You can also spend some time resting to regain health and sanity, but that increases the corruption spreading through the ocean and make missions harder over time.
To make matters worse, you also need to worry about air – lose enough of it, and your divers start suffering side effects leading up to the complete loss of sanity. Air can be replenished in air vents scattered around the level or by going back to the ship, but the rate of usage and the scarcity of vents is enough to never, ever make you comfortable. Similarly, you can use submarine abilities like the spotlight and the sonar to help you out during tactical portions, but the constant worry about power supply guarantees you are rarely at ease using them.
This is all clearly by design, as the game on normal difficulty can be quite tense. Your characters can take much more punishment than enemies, but the scarcity of resources and the outnumbered nature of missions means the game can sometimes leave you on a sliver of health time after time. Together with the non-passive healing that happens in the Salem, it is remarkably easy to get into a very bad situation – especially as there are no save slots, so the game forces you to live with your good and bad choices. To slightly make up for it, the title thankfully features a Narrative difficulty in addition to its Easy/Normal/Hard choices, but it would be good to also have more save slots to allow experimentation and replayability.
The biggest issue I have with Stirring Abyss is the style. If you read enough of my pieces, you will know I have an intense dislike of 2D games, and they always end up detracting from what could be a brilliant experience. While the divers’ sprites seem to be 3D, the whole game is actually 2D, meaning you cannot rotate the environment and reading it can get rather unsavoury with all the vines, debris, and rocks in the way. The end result is that the game feels shallower than it actually is thanks to the 2D terrains, and it still surprises me that indie devs insist on going for the cheaper 2D nowadays when even a non-laborious 3D would instantly make the game much better (like Partisans 1941 or Kingdoms and Castles demonstrate).
Thankfully, the art style and interface itself are not bad, and the sound design, voice acting, and music are all rather good. They effectively complement the title’s old Cold War aesthetic mixed with an intensely weird and semi-scary eldritch approach, and the result is a game that makes better use of its H. P. Lovecraft setting than most similar games of the past decade. It is both a surprisingly competent strategy game and an effective instigator of that apprehension of not knowing what’s in the dark. While the bottom of the ocean doesn’t actually translate well as a setting in a 2D strategy game – what’s more frightful than looking up with the camera in 3D and seeing pitch-black darkness an arm’s length from your face? – the final product is a very capable indie title that definitely deserves a shot – if you can stomach the 2D, that is.
STIRRING ABYSS VERDICT
A capable indie strategy title that does more with its Lovecraftian setting than most similar games of the past decade
TOP GAME MOMENT
Finally having a functioning sub and stop worrying about power and resources after a few hours into the campaign
Nice visuals and sound design
Enemies are varied
Gameplay options are quite diverse, including the more "operational support" sub abilities and the magic eldritch powers
Story is intriguing and well delivered
Good number of difficulty options, and an endless mode to boot
2D tactics games were a really bad thing in the 1990s, and it still are 30 years later
Difficulty is a bit too harsh on Normal, where two turns of missed attacks can mean you either die to an enemy or go crazy due to lack of oxygen
No save slots, meaning it forces you to ironman through the campaign and potentially ruin it all in a single play session
About Marcello Perricone
Passionate, handsome, and just a tiny bit cocky, our resident Time Lord loves history, science, and all things that fall from the sky.