Perhaps it says something about us as a culture that underwater horror has remained so relevant for nearly a century and a half. From 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, first published in 1870, to James Cameron’s The Abyss in 1989, the fear of the unknown hasn’t only been limited to the infinite mysteries of space, but also what’s lurking beneath the water that covers most of our planet. With books and movies so concerned with plotting out what horrors hide in the lakes and oceans right in our backyards, it was only a matter of time before nautical science-fiction made its way into games. BioShock, for example, set its world in a corrupt underwater city. More recently, Soma took players to an underwater research lab filled with psychological frights.
In terms of design and atmosphere, Debris, the first game from developer Moonray Studios, takes a lot of its mood and setting from Soma. It’s a first-person shooter and exploration game with an emphasis on exploration around a dark, deep cavern filled with ice that you find yourself trapped in. The game uses everything it can to add to the atmosphere it creates early on. The music helps set the tone, creating a vibe that somehow manages to feel mysterious, beautiful and quietly unsafe. While an indie game doesn’t need groundbreaking graphics to make a name for itself, the ice caverns and glowing-red rocks along the bottom of the ocean are excellent when running the game on a powerful PC. All of this leads to Debris creating one of the best emotional mood settings I’ve seen from an indie game, accomplishing it within the first few minutes of the game.
In Debris, you play as Ryan, a videographer who specializes in capturing underwater footage. Contracted by an energy company called ALTA, your job is to dive down into an arctic reef with two employees, Sonya and Chris, to create a promotional video about the company’s latest discovery: meteoric debris that produces clean energy. At the beginning of the game, after seeing some glowing fish that seem more than suspicious, an explosion occurs, causing you, Chris and Sonya to be separated and dragged underwater with the current. Eventually, you manage to meet up with a drone submarine which is being piloted by Sonya after your light was taken away by a rogue fish. Together, the two of you must remotely work together to find Chris and receive help from above.
There are a ton of interesting ideas inside of Debris and at its core. It’s the story that really carries the player throughout the game. Avoiding spoilers, Debris deals with a central core mystery that really works, carried by a slow-burn pace that keeps you involved without dumping exposition on you all at once. The voice acting is strong for a game at this level; full voice acting can often be risky, especially when much of the story is carried through an audio-driven narrative like this. However, outside of a few sweaty moments — a blasé reaction to tentacle monsters attacking you through a cave is not what I expected to see from the main character — everything feels natural while you’re playing the game.
When you first begin the game, things start great. Moving around the 3D underwater space works well, thanks to a December patch which added controls to move up and down throughout the game (reading through early reviews on Steam, it’s clear that this was a major issue). In fact, it’s fair to say that considering the amount of flack underwater levels in games (the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time; the water stages in Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate), Debris managing to master some level of quality for exploring the stages is worth of admiration and praise. That’s why it’s even more confounding that the biggest problem with the gameplay isn’t the movement up and around the maze-like structure of the world, but the gun-type weapon you’re given at the beginning of the game to navigate with.
Early on in the game, after finding Sonya’s water-drone, you’re led to an area where you find a tool provided by ALTA that works as both a flare gun and a weapon. This becomes your main weapon throughout most of the game and turns Debris into a puzzle-shooter combination that seems appealing at first glance. Much of the game after this consists of killing or dodging glowing, hostile fish which surround the debris that Sonya can harvest to gain energy for both characters. Energy acts as your time remaining in the game and as a health system, so it’s important to keep this up. Quickly, this starts to feel repetitious and dull.
Theoretically, exploration of the underwater levels can help you break up these segments, but actually exploring these stages becomes intensely difficult. Though your gun can produce light when torch mode is enabled (something increased in a December patch for the game), it doesn’t truly allow for a full sense of immersion in the game. You can call Sonya’s drone to produce light, but the small robot is constantly pushing you to follow it to proceed through the game world. Considering that the entire game revolves around time, it’s difficult to justify wandering off on your first playthrough.
Shooting and dodging these oceanic monsters repeatedly isn’t the only problem with the mechanic. Perhaps to emulate shooting underwater, aiming your weapon feels floaty and imprecise, leading to multiple shots missed if you’re firing haphazardly. Likewise, large chunks of damage are easily taken if you’re too slow to take a shot while aiming. The time gained from debris throughout the game doesn’t only function as your health; it’s your ammo too, which means taking five or six shots to kill a single fish early in the game can really drain your life force. Despite repeating the same task over and over throughout the game, Debris‘ shooting just never felt natural. It was infuriating to miss several shots in a row because you couldn’t line up the sight correctly, and even more maddening when you were punished for attempting to hit multiple targets quickly as fish are swimming at you.
The story is interesting enough to keep a player moving through the game. However, Debris lacks a certain direction to keep you entertained throughout the silent segments. The horror elements of the title aren’t quite developed enough to avoid feeling out of place. Meanwhile, the central mystery manages to carry your interest, upon reaching the ending of the title to pull the rug out from beneath the player, even if I appreciated what the game was going for. Still, these problems don’t stop Debris from managing to tell an engrossing story with multiple endings based on the choice the player makes throughout the game.
Although I found the shooting to be a lackluster part of the game, anyone looking for a solid three or four-hour story-driven adventure will appreciate what Moonray Studios has created here. The development team has continued to update the game with new features, bug fixes, and improved controls (I can’t even imagine playing this game without the ability to move up and down with the bumpers on a controller). With some changes to how the combat system works, Debris could truly shine among the indie titles released throughout 2017.