Preview – Iron Fish
It’s crazy how different the horror genre has become in video games, thanks to the rise of the independent developer. It was only a generation ago where people were saying these type of games were no longer viable in the mass market, but in reality that was never the case, it was just that budgets were spiralling out of control for huge publishers to invest in these games when they could not make a big profit. The indie scene has reignited the genre with some fantastic, and not so great, titles, and recently I was given the chance to play through 40 mins of Iron Fish, an upcoming psychological deep-sea thriller for PC by Dead Edwards and BeefJack that wants to make you shark food by the horrors that lay in the depths of the ocean.
Deep sea diver, Cerys Harley, is who you take the role off in Iron Fish. She is a British marine biologist who researchers the deep blue sea and is currently contracted to an elite British Naval group to investigate the strange disturbance with the sea life, while also following a distress call that leads to a shipwreck of a container vessel. The preview starts with Cerys coming out of her diving cage and learning the controls to move and interact. Cerys might be alone in the unexplored depths, but above the ocean sending his voice through radio is Marshall. His first chat is sharing tips on repairing the submarine to begin travelling towards the distress signal blinking from the ocean bed. Marshall fills in the role of communicator, a similar role to Catherine in Soma or Delilah from Firewatch, where he feeds the player with information, be it hints, random information or world building, to keep content pumped to the player while they are progressing with the story, while finding out more about the person they are playing as.
The preview, while not long enough to truly understand where the story is going (although, there seems to be some none natural elements arising), does manage to give me some inkling that this game is going for a story driven narrative, very similar to Soma. There is some initial exploration as Marshall begins setting up Cerys to find a bunch of devices with logs. Here you are free to drive the submarine and checkout the game’s Unreal Engine 4 scenery. The developers have managed to present the unlit murky ocean grounds in some twisted beautiful manner, although, in the preview, the frame rate was a little unstable, especially since not much in terms of the environment is active, apart from a few sea-life swimming around – nowhere near the amount of Abzû– yet it never hits 60 frames per second, often hanging around 30, and dropping occasionally, but I assume this is mostly down to optimisation, as other Unreal Engine 4 games have released in states that perform well.
Exploring the ocean in the submarine is Cerys only protection. Leaving the vessel for story reasons opens up Cerys to the threat of the environment. A good example of this is the part of the preview where Cerys is asked to go into the wrecked cargo ship to find any spare tools or info left behind. Around the ship are sharks, likely hunting for their next meaty snack, and you just happen to be fresh meat coming their way. Cerys has no true means to protect herself. There is a melee button, but this does not seem impactful enough to trust, as a shark made me its meal in mere seconds. Sharks don’t seem to be the brightest of creatures in Iron Fish. Sometimes they will notice you and come at you, other times they will ignore and swim pass without a second thought. AI does feel like it could do with a bit more work due to the above issue, as it gives the impression that the sharks aren’t all there, making them feel like window dressing at times.
It was only a few days ago from this preview being posted that I had played Abzû, another underwater game, but one that is aiming for a completely different experience. That said, I praised Abzû‘s controls for swimming, because they made exploring such an easy thing to accomplish. General movement in Iron Fish is simple enough to do with the typical mouse and keyboard first-person controls or the dual sticks of a controller, but it isn’t quite smooth, a little clunky in up-righting the prospective. Also, and something that I found that spoilt my enjoyment of the preview, is the speed the player moves at – it is so frustratingly slow. This doesn’t work all too well with the limited oxygen supply that needs to be managed. It doesn’t allow enough time for Cerys to explore much away from her submarine, which in such an interesting location seems to be counter-intuitive. I died a few times because I could not get back to the submarine in time to replenish my oxygen.
If the submarine could be used at will to explore, then it would not be as bad, but free movement of the vessel is restricted in specific parts of the preview build. If the story wants you to go to an area, then the submarine can be used, but once the destination is reached, the submarine must be parked on the surface before the game will continue on with the objective. This parking space is the home base of oxygen supply, that is unless you find items hidden within debris or supply chests that contain O2. To combat the slow swimming speed, the developer has put in a small Cayago to grab on to and use its propulsion to travel faster underwater. A neat idea in principle, but the shortness of the battery means it soon dies, requiring the player to get off the vehicle to let it begin charging again. If left stranded far away from the submarine, then I found that it was pretty much over for me, as waiting for enough battery and then trying to travel back to the submarine before my oxygen depleted often ended up in misery and death. I understand adding tension to the game by having these restrictions, but there is a fine line between compelling and tight mechanics and ones that frustrate the player, rather than emit tension and panic that the game is trying to go for.
To help find key locations of interest, and trust me, you will need to use this – the area around the sunken ship is big enough to easily stray and run out of oxygen – the scanner tool will flash various colours that determine what type that point of interest is. The preview did not really use this much other than the help with picking up data logs, which I hope the full game does not turn into. I was told that “This is not a polished public demo, but a preview build designed to give you a good sense of the game,” this could mean they have a plan to expand on the sandbox element of the environment and delivery on the story – the preview does seem to promote a twist with the supernatural, and having that mixed with the terrifying horrors of zombie-esque sharks, being on your own with only a voice through an ear piece to comfort you should make for at least an interesting tale that comes with a few scares. In fact, I was hit good with a jump scare involving a container and various human body parts. The reveal, hidden in the dark until the container lights up, along with the impact of the music, hit me good that I moved back in my chair. I wonder if the game can keep up this sense of tension and suspension, as I was impressed with the impact of that simple scene with its discovery.
I left leaving the preview build on a positive note about Iron Fish. I like the idea of the horrors that could unfold from being deep in the ocean – one of the things I liked about exploring outside in Soma – and if done right, could deliver a great environment to bring the scares that inhabits the unexplored parts of Earth. Polish is certainly needed in regards to controls and performance, but with an interesting turn in the story towards the end of the preview, there are questions asked that need answering in the full release. Iron Fish is due September 12th, 2016, not leaving the developers much time left, but if they can fix some of the issues I had with the controls, the rest of the game seems to promise an enjoyable underwater thriller that might be one to watch out for in Steam’s growing list of horror indie games.