Deadly Secrets In The Dark

HIGH Rushing elements through a monster-filled cave to keep a reactor from overloading.

LOW If I’m clipped to the line, why can’t I reload while hanging?

WTF The last level is a baffling mess.

Never before has careful exploration felt this dramatically satisfying.

Hidden Deep is about slow, methodical movement through unimaginably hostile environments. It traps players in bad situations and expects them to crawl their way out while dozens of flesh-craving monsters hunt them down, and when it works, it’s magnificent.

Played from a 2D side-view perspective, Hidden Deep has players controlling up to three characters as they investigate a crumbling undersea facility. While the various monsters are threatening enough, the main challenge revolves around navigating the crudely-hewn mines and the raw caves beyond. Everything happens at a measured pace — there’s almost no light in the pit, so the player has to rely on flashlights that illuminate a small area and their hearing for everything else. Hidden Deep is all about making the player feel trapped and claustrophobic, and the close-in camera and limited light sources do a great job of pulling that off.

There are two character types for the player to control — scouts, who have a grappling gun that allows them to explore hard-to-reach places, and engineers who can work the various machines placed around the facility. While most of the missions currently available have the player controlling a single scout investigating the map, Hidden Deep‘s best moments involve juggling a number of tasks simultaneously. Engineers moving heavy machinery as the scout guns down the hordes of beasts that the noise attracts, for example. This can be quite difficult in the story mode, as the other characters have literally no AI and the player has to constantly swap between them. However, in the various challenge modes, two people exploring the depths together on a split screen feels like the most natural thing in the world.

While there’s almost no story to speak of, Hidden Deep‘s premise is established clearly enough. Some professionals have been dispatched to the bottom of the ocean to investigate a mining and research facility that, by all rights, shouldn’t exist. There are huge machines, mysterious crystals, and disgusting creatures scattered throughout the claustrophobic tunnels, and players have to determine for themselves exactly what’s going on with all of it, because the game has no interest in clearing things up.

This kind of oblique presentation would ordinarily frustrate me, but Hidden Deep does such a good job of using environmental storytelling to inform players that I ended up not minding that there aren’t any actual characters or more than a single line of dialogue that isn’t pure exposition.

The lack of explanation makes a lot of dramatic sense, as players can decide for themselves how to react to the absolutely insane circumstances they find themselves in. There’s an almost Lovecraftian feel to the bizarre structures that turn up beneath the ocean – why is there a nuclear reactor down here? What purpose does this giant sphere serve, and why does it liquefy the bodies of anyone who gets near it? No answers are forthcoming. Perhaps once Hidden Deep is out of Early Access some clear, satisfying answers will be available, but at the moment, the mysteries speak for themselves.

Hidden Deep‘s combat is oddly satisfying, considering how basic it is. Players have either a pistol or assault rifle (depending on the mission) and they use the mouse to direct a fire at whatever is chasing them down. The developer has gone above and beyond to make things feel a little awkward and the characters’ hands are always a little shaky, causing the aiming laser to dance around the screen. It gives the impression that the characters are a little wary and unsure of themselves at all times, which, given the situation, is forgivable. More importantly, it makes every combat engagement a desperate and harrowing experience — while the heroes aren’t equipped for the threats they’re facing, those creatures are absolutely ready to tear them to pieces if given the slightest opening.

Although it nails the mood and most of the gameplay, Hidden Deep has a few major drawbacks that keep it from truly impressing.

First, it’s a little content-light at the moment. There are just a handful of missions, and although each one is satisfying to play, the entire available campaign feels like an extended tutorial, with each new level introducing a new gameplay mechanic or vehicle. Just as I’d finished learning how to play the full game and readied myself to uncover the pit’s mysteries, I played one more mission and was then kicked back to the main menu — there isn’t even a way to go back and replay earlier missions without restarting the campaign, which seems like an oversight.

The challenge modes went a long way towards keeping me coming back, though. Players can search for an item, battle monsters or tend a reactor, all with randomized maps and enemies. It’s not as good as the crafted missions, of course, but the mechanics are so good that simply giving the player reasons to keep using them is a heck of an accomplishment, especially when playing co-op feels like a whole new experience.

Last year I predicted that Hidden Deep would turn up on my best-of-2022 list, and nothing about the game as it currently stands causes me to reconsider that — the only major problem Hidden Deep has is that there just isn’t enough of it yet, but hopefully that’s something that the developer can address before launch. What’s already here, though? It’s spectacular.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Cogwheel Software and published by Daedalic Entertainment and Whispergamers. It is currently available on PC. Copies of the game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode. The game was completed. 2 hours were spend in multiplayer modes.

Parents: This game was not rated by the ESRB, and it contains Blood and Gore and Violence. This game is extremely violent — while the models may be lacking in detail, the game goes out of its way to swap in gory textures as they take brutal injuries. This is a game where the player can be walking down a hallway and suddenly a giant worm will swallow them mostly whole. Not for kids.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played almost the entire game without sound and encountered a few key difficulties. Since the player’s ability to see is so severely limited, being able to hear approaching monsters is vitally important — expect a lot of unfair deaths if you play it without full hearing. Hopefully at some point the developer will add markers at the edge of the screen to represent the direction in which audible threats lie. All dialogue is subtitled, subtitles cannot be resized. This game is not fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: Yes, the game’s controls are remappable.

Daniel Weissenberger
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