Hunt for treasure in a dark ocean full of hungry sharks.
PC Release: Early Access
By Ian Coppock
Sharks are an obvious topic for the next installment of Short Horror Week, given how much they scare the shit out of just about everybody. They also prop up Shark Week, which is probably by far the Discovery Channel’s most profitable series. Tonight, I’m deviating away from the supernatural to bring you more stuff of nightmares, this time rooted in the very real creatures that actually surround us.
Depth is a grisly cocktail of blood and seawater, brought to us a little over a month ago by the indie devs at Digital Confectioners. You play as a diver en route to the darkest pits of the ocean, sent forth to gather lost treasures and swim away rich.
The premise alone should be enough to clue in what happens next; those oceans aren’t exactly empty. They’re actually packed with 20-foot-long man-eating sharks.
Now for an actual surprise: Depth is a multiplayer game. Yep. It’s humans vs. sharks in a race to gather treasure and return to the ship for a fast getaway. It’s up to the divers to protect themselves and their treasure-gathering robots from the sharks. The sharks, as you may have guessed, must kill all the divers before they can make their escape.
Now, I know what some of you might be thinking; “how can you have true tension in a multiplayer experience, and why the hell are you reviewing a multiplayer game?”. Believe me, I didn’t think I’d ever include that in a review, let alone Short Horror Week. To answer your first question though, think about this: even if I have human players with me, that means I have human-controlled monsters waiting for me in that inky black water. The only thing more dangerous than a monster powered by a machine is a monster powered by the unpredictability of the human mind.
Depth‘s multiplayer nature precludes any sort of narrative. A portly bastard who sits safe and sunny on the boat will yell orders on which treasure piles to hit, but other than that, the only voice given to your character is most likely you screaming in surprise as a shark darts out of the darkness and chews on what used to be your leg. Good stuff.
The structure of the game mission, though, is absolutely drenched in atmosphere and tension. The game’s five maps are all murky and labyrinthine, ranging from the vertical maze that is a toppled oil rig to an ancient Olmec ruin. Treasure can be found pretty much everywhere, but your primary goal is to protect a little robot that gathers up the really big scores. The only indication that a shark’s nearby is the frequency of your heartbeat. More heartbeats, fewer seconds to live.
Even though the game is multiplayer and without a narrative, I don’t think I need to keep explaining how creeping around maze-like environments hiding from what might as well be hangry, serrated torpedoes is terrifying. Unique to Depth is the fact that humans control the sharks, so you can bet they’re going to be a lot smarter and a lot less predictable than your usual monster fare.
Compounding this threat is the game’s outstanding level design. The maps are disorienting and dark. The sounds of the deep ocean are not unlike your heart pounding in your ears. Each level is also well-detailed with schools of fish and other underwater features, but I was usually too busy getting my ass eviscerated to pay attention. The levels are wound tight in a design sense and offer plenty of places to explore… and to hide in.
Despite the game’s competent level design and offering a multiplayer experience that intrigues even me, the antisocial man-cave troll, Depth‘s gameplay needs a lot of work. The sharks have the ability to sense your presence at all times, so I actually kinda lied when I said you can hide from them. This makes it impossible to employ any strategy other than praying hard and aiming low.
Additionally, the game’s simple goal of protecting the treasure robot is a bit too simple for its own good. Divers and sharks will systematically wipe each other out with each re-spawn. This creatures a tenuous tug-of-war gaming session that can get dreadfully dull, as one side kills the other, takes the robot, gets killed when the other respawns, etc. etc.
The last word on Depth‘s problems is balance. Sharks can see exactly where divers are. Divers can’t see jack shit in that dark water. Sharks are ridiculously fast and can usually tear a diver up in seconds. Divers have tools and weapons (including guns that somehow work underwater) but hitting something that swims at a bajillion miles an hour and can turn on a dime isn’t exactly easy. These things weren’t deal-breakers for me, but they do leave a pretty big vacuum where more fun could have been.
The silver lining to this, though? You can play as a shark. And it is awesome.
Basically, if you’ve ever wanted to turn the tables, become the hunter, master the depths, all that shit, than playing a shark is for you. I’ve found it to be a healthy outlet for my misanthropy.
Despite its problems, Depth is worth the buy. The developer seems receptive to the community’s complaints and keeps releasing patches to tweak the problems I talked about. Hopefully they won’t be an issue much longer, but I can promise you this: if you’re a diver, this game is all of society’s worst nightmares about sharks come true. So jump in, if you dare.
You can buy Depth here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at email@example.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.