The Real Terror From The Deep
HIGH Mutating my crew until they were as beastly as the enemies.
LOW The slow start.
WTF Random character generation can have unintentionally racist results!
If nothing else, The Stirring Abyss makes good on the promise of XCOM 2: Terror From the Deep by proving that moving turn-based action to the depths of the sea can, in fact, lead to a solid strategic horror experience.
Set in the 1950s, TSA puts players in charge of the crew of the Salem, a submarine that was investigating a strange new mountain growing out of the waters of the Atlantic when a disaster crippled it, leaving the crew barely clinging to life. After a training mission where a group of lucky survivors fight their way back to the ship, the player has to dig into the meat of the experience — figuring out what’s behind the terrifying threat they face and fixing their submarine so they can get home.
All of this is accomplished in a series of XCOM-style turn-based missions, as the troops, clad in primitive steel and leather pressure suits, are moved around the board while looking for enemies to kill, salvage to recover, and clues to explain their predicament.
In addition to managing action points and special skill cooldowns, TSA offers a few wrinkles that make the missions more interesting than many of its contemporaries. For example, there’s a sanity meter which wears down when characters are attacked by monstrous foes or when they fail in their attempts to make use of eldritch magics, but that’s a fairly common inclusion for Lovecraft-themed games. More intriguing is the oxygen meter.
The Stirring Abyss makes the most of its undersea setting and never lets the player forget that there’s a strict timer on all of its missions. Crewmembers have a certain amount of air in their tanks, and while they can bring an emergency tank or find air vents on the seafloor, those are just stopgap solutions.
The result of having limited air is that missions force players to be much more aggressive in decision-making than what would be normal for the genre. While tactical RPGs will frequently have missions with time limits designed to change game flow, every TSA battle is as much against time as it is the monstrosities in the undersea city they’re investigating. The result is extremely stressful, yet pleasantly brisk gameplay with missions that zip by more quickly than I’d anticipated.
Base management is as nearly important as the combat missions, with the Salem itself being an important tool in completing missions.
As players find scrap and supplies, they’ll gradually repair and improve the sub. This is vital both because the crew needs facilities to rest and recuperate between missions, but also because various rooms offer in-mission perks. The Salem can use sonar to mark important locations, shine a spotlight to reveal threats or alternate paths, or even fire torpedoes to level the opposition. There’s a built-in energy meter that only refills between missions, but even with that restriction the Salem is an invaluable ally, and I found myself wishing that more turn-based action games gave me access to this sort of support.
While The Stirring Abyss does plenty of interesting things with story and gameplay, the presentation left me a little cold. This isn’t an issue of graphics, which do a great job of creating alien environments and creepy monsters, but more of the developers embracing the genre’s board game origins.
Instead of making attempts to draw the player into the world, they’re kept at arm’s length with a text box explaining all of the dice rolls that led to a given result, and occasional literal dice rolling sequences to decide important moments. This approach ensures that the game is more of an intellectual experience rather than a visceral one.
The Stirring Abyss is creepy, inventive, and short enough that it doesn’t wear out its welcome. The secrets of the depths are intriguing, and the setpiece battles and boss fights were satisfying. The developers have even included a roguelike endless battle mode for anyone who wants to keep grinding away once they’ve finished the game — if it was a bit less boardgamey and a little more immersive, I’d be able to endorse it wholeheartedly.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Sleepy Sentry and K-Project and published by Slitherine. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 25 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There is no multiplayer.
Parents: This game was not reviewed by the ESRB, but it contains Blood and Gore and Violence. This gets really gory, really fast. Not only are combat deaths bloody, but players will find hideously mutilated corpses in the world. There’s even a disemboweled corpse on the game’s Steam page! Keep this to grownups and teens!
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game offers subtitles. The subtitles cannot be altered and/or resized. All information is provided by text, and I encountered no difficulties in playing it. There are no audio cues that I noticed. This game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. It can be controlled entirely with a mouse, but keyboard shortcuts are available as well.