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July 2024

Still Wakes the Deep

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action
Publisher: Secret Mode
Developer: The Chinese Room
Release Date: June 18, 2024


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PC Review - 'Still Wakes the Deep'

by Cody Medellin on June 17, 2024 @ 6:00 a.m. PDT

Still Wakes the Deep is a first-person, narrative horror set on an off-shore oil platform.

Game developer The Chinese Room specializes in the narrative adventure experience. While it covers all sorts of genres, it has a knack for suspense and horror, with games like Everybody's Gone to the Rapture fulfilling the former and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs addressing the latter. Before the team aims for its highest profile project yet with Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines 2, it has Still Wakes the Deep, another horror game that shows off how well the team can deliver a horror-tinged experience.

The year is 1975, and Christmas is approaching. You play the role of Caz, an electrician working on the Beira D oil rig located off the coast of Scotland. It isn't the most glamorous of jobs, but it beats the alternative of going to jail back on the mainland for assaulting someone who insulted your wife. Your luck seems to be running out today, as your wife is threatening divorce and your boss learned about your past and fired you. Just as you're about to leave, an explosion occurs that unleashes some unknown terror on the rig, and it falls on you to find a way to escape with (hopefully) some survivors.

Without spoiling anything, the story is pretty straightforward in its approach. The ending is fairly sensible, but there are no major plot twists. No one is trying to explain what's going on, so there remains a sense of mystery about the terror and what it can do. Few characters end up making stupid decisions, so the main goal of getting everyone out of the rig alive remains paramount. While that might disappoint some players, it also can be a breath of fresh air for those who are used to experiencing a story that tries to come up with something shocking just for the sake of doing so.

If we would nitpick anything about the story, it would be its failure to adhere to time-appropriate details. The presence of computer magazines might be fine, but the abundance of VHS tapes at a time when the technology never hit the mainstream is enough to make you feel like the choice of date was arbitrary instead of something well thought-out.

On the flipside, one thing that makes the story very enjoyable are the characters. The people don't come with much depth, and they don't fit into stereotypes, but the fact that they're a mix of Scots and Britons gives the game some flavor. Hearing their accents is one thing, but hearing them speak with their appropriate slang gives the game some personality and makes the subtitles almost mandatory if you want to understand some of the words and phrases.

Shown from a first-person perspective, Still Wakes the Deep initially adopts some of the more notable traits of the narrative adventure genre. There's a good deal of opening doors and vents to locked areas and an equal amount of switch-flipping to activate contraptions for progression. There's plenty of conversation to be had, but there are no dialog choices, so there's no need to worry about saying the wrong thing. Inventory is nonexistent, but you can engage in some limited activities, such as putting out fires with an extinguisher, when the need arises.

One thing that the game strays away from is the need to read every document and use collectibles to fill in the lore. You can still do that early on if you want to check out the unlocked cabins, but that diminishes greatly once the explosion occurs. After that, you have no opportunity to go to a different screen to read posters or look at random things. No one leaves behind notes in convenient places, and there's no abundance of audio or written logs for you to peruse. Like the characters you encounter, there's no desire to fill in any backstory or give the environment more character than what's needed, which is refreshing for a genre that often features collectibles and similar items for the hell of it.

As a horror game with no combat in it, Still Wakes the Deep encourages you to do a bunch of hiding, and you only move when you know you can safely reach the next space. You can distract creatures by throwing objects like wrenches or thermoses to make sounds, and you can even chuck those objects directly at the monsters. The game features a good deal of hiding spots, but don't expect this to be a hardcore stealth-horror experience. While the monsters will react to sound, shining a light on them doesn't do much to get them to notice you. There are a great deal of throwables in areas where you need them, and that does tone down the fear factor a tad.

The game is still a frightening experience, but except for one instance where a new ability is revealed, jump-scares aren't the game's forte. Instead, the horror manifests from a large looming sense of dread. Monster encounters aren't a constant thing, so their appearance is somewhat special. Whenever a monster or a mysterious substance is near, the moaning and unintelligible babbling and screaming may be expected, but the presence of a bubbling picture effect at the edges of the screen adds the sense that something isn't right, especially since it can partially obscure your vision. The monster designs are grotesque; what you'll see is a combination of pulsating masses with some body parts and organs and bones visible, further adding to your sense of unease. The only disappointing thing is that the monsters only follow you so far, so you're relatively safe if you can reach the next door.

Another reason the horror works is because the whole game takes place on an oil rig, a place that isn't often used in a horror setting but is the kind of place no one would want to visit in the first place. The constant storm outside is a classic horror staple, but the oppressive interiors add to the horror vibe. The bland color schemes in just about every room are contrasted even more when you see specks of color from a few Christmas decorations. The labyrinth-like layout of the facility proves to be confusing, especially in areas like pipe and engine rooms, and the chaos brought about by the initial explosion builds upon that, even if some of the set pieces feel a bit manufactured.

The final element that makes the horror work is the increased presence of platforming. That's not something you expect from a game that uses a purely first-person perspective, but Still Wakes the Deep applies some yellow paint to the elements that you can interact with to ensure that you're on a walkable or climbable surface; a future update will give you the option to turn off some of this. Even with that in play, the game often has you leap across large chasms to reach platforms or rickety ladders, or it'll have you walk on narrow ledges and balance beams. This often means holding down a button to make sure that you grab onto the edge of a platform and holding another button when you begin to slip so as to regain your balance. Platforming and climbing are abundant, but the slips and near-misses occur infrequently enough that you may be caught by surprise when the on-screen prompts to keep yourself safe suddenly appear.

If there is one annoyance in the gameplay department, it would be with the swimming sections that appear in the back half of the game. The controls in these sections are fine, but unlike the monster encounters, you don't get a good sense of how long you can be underwater without drowning. That leads to a good number of instances where you'll tackle the same section multiple times because death comes suddenly. You'll still expect to die a few times because the murky water creates situations where you'll have to figure out where to go. Something feels amiss, though, because in two attempts, you can have the exact same pace and take the exact same route, but one attempt is successful because the game feels like it wants to be kind.

All in all, the game hits a runtime of between five and six hours, which is good, as the adventure would start to feel like it's dragging if it went on any longer. There are no alternate pathways or endings, so expect a fully linear experience from start to finish. One thing that may disappoint some players is that there is no way to select chapters, and with only one save slot, those wanting to return to get any Achievements they may have missed will have to start up a new game.

Graphically, the title does its best given its setting. An oil rig isn't exactly the most glamorous, but it's rendered well, and very few elements have a texture issue, something that may be more the fault of Unreal Engine's texture loading rather than a lack of clean textures. The characters are rendered just fine, and the mouth movements are good; the few creatures you encounter look grotesque enough. The water contains just the right amount of a swirling rainbow effect to inform you that it isn't going to be clean, and the frame rate holds steady no matter what's happening on-screen.

There is one issue with the graphics, and it has to do with the frame rate of certain objects. We played the game on both a RTX 4090 at 4K as well as a RTX 4070 Ti Super at 3440x1440. In both cases, wires and other small objects that would constantly move would do so at 30fps or below, while everything else was moving at 60fps or above, creating a strange visual contrast. The effect is worst in an early scene where someone falls from the rig, and they move with a reduced frame rate compared to the rest of the game. It isn't a huge issue, but it is bothersome when it occurs.

Compared to the graphics, the audio fares a little better. As mentioned before, the voice work is wonderful, and the need for subtitles is more for translating the slang, as the voice volume is clear and audible and balanced well against everything else. The effects also come out clearly, and the monsters sound appropriately creepy, especially as the appendages slam against all surfaces. The music is effective, as it doesn't play all of the time but emphasizes moments when something bad is about to happen; it ratchets up the sense of dread even if you're relatively safe at the end of the encounter.

If you're planning to play the game on a Steam Deck, prepare for a rough time. The game runs stretched out and squashed, as if it's originally a 4:3 game running on a 16:10 monitor. Even worse, only the touch-screen initially works, and the cursor aiming is off. You can fix the controls by going into Steam's options to change the control scheme in hopes of regaining control of the gamepad. You can fix the stretched-out graphics by selecting anything in the Options menu and applying the changes, but this isn't a great first impression for those who use their Deck as their primary gaming PC. It also doesn't help that the game doesn't support cloud saves, so trying to progress with the same save between the Steam Deck and another PC is a no-go.

When you finally get things fixed, the game runs on the device's 1280x800 resolution, but a quick check of the video settings shows that just about every setting is on High or Epic but activates FSR 3 in Balanced mode by default. Turn on MangoHUD, and you'll see that the game initially runs at 60fps but often hovers around 40fps in most indoor scenes and drops further when going outdoors. None of this seems bad until you start to rotate the camera, as you're greeted by loads of stutter and frame pacing issues. Going back into the options and changing what you can to their lowest settings helps a bit, but taking FSR quality to Performance eliminates the rotational stutter — if you're willing to take a grainier picture in exchange. You'll get a better frame rate by going with Ultra Performance, but the bigger hit to graphical fidelity isn't worth it.

Still Wakes the Deep is a good atmospheric horror game. Having it set on an oil rig is terrifying enough because of their innate labyrinthine structures, and the monster encounters provide the right amount of horror energy. The straightforward nature of the pacing and tale is refreshing, and even the presence of a few flaws doesn't hamper one's desire to play the game to the end. If you're a horror fan who favors exploration more than fighting, Still Wakes the Deep is definitely worth checking out.

Score: 8.0/10

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