Preview: Iron Fish
At last I’ve had chance to play the underwater horror adventure Iron Fish, which was announced back in May, immediately grabbing my attention and building my excitement ever since. The premise of the game is one that really evokes a sense of dread and intrigue, putting you in the shoes (or flippers) of oceanographer Cerys Harley, who is contracted by an elite British naval group and tasked with investigating some mysterious disturbances to the sea life. And as she dives deeper into the ocean, she discovers things more sinister.
It’s a great concept for a horror adventure game, really. Swimming is slow and deliberate, meaning encounters of a hostile nature are more tense, the atmosphere is eerie – perhaps peaceful, but having the potential to make you feel vulnerable with its dulled, muted ambience – and, of course, when so much of the ocean is left undiscovered, we genuinely don’t know about a lot of the creatures down there.
So yeah, I had a lot of expectations for this game. But does the preview build exemplify those qualities? A few of them, sure…others not so much, and others it’s impossible to tell at this stage. It was a short preview build and as a result I didn’t actually get a definitive impression either way.
The gameplay section available in the preview takes place towards the beginning of the game – before Cerys has started exploring more deeply in the ocean. We start out in her little personal submarine, and are instructed to drive it to a waypoint next to a sunken ship. The first thing that strikes me is the environment and sea life. There are plenty of fish and other sea creatures roaming around, and developers have really created an interesting little area. Most of it seems pointless to explore, but it’s nice to drive over and under rocks, through vegetation and next to the sea creatures (when swimming around you can even scan sea creatures to unlock bios on them).
After reaching the waypoint we are instructed by our colleague over comms to exit and search the immediate area for schematics/data files that have been lost there. You have a tracker in hand, which shows the direction of these objectives, as well as quite a large quantity of other collectable items. Our comms buddy warns us to keep an eye out for sharks, which are patrolling the area, and upon entering a shipping container this warning is justified as we’re exposed to a plethora of floating limbs.
I find it a bit weird that Cerys didn’t react to the sight, but the developers have mentioned that there are some aspects in this early preview that are meant for later in the game; and obviously, this is by no means a finished experience. I swim about a bit collecting the rest of the data files, getting to grips with the controls and the feel of swimming around. It feels a tad clunky – it is slow as you would expect, but it doesn’t need to be so inflexible. I actually have a bit of a battle with a railing on the sunken ship, as I get stuck and can’t seem to swim up or around easily enough. There’s a ‘fast swim’ button, which the developers are still working on however, and which alleviates this somewhat.
It’s also made abundantly clear during my initial moments in the game that oxygen management is an important feature. I die a couple of times, due to staying out in the water too long. It does seem a little harsh on the oxygen – I’m sure an experienced diver would probably go out with more than a couple of minute’s worth of oxygen – but you can swim back to your sub to restock.
After collecting the last of the data files, our comms man becomes a little worried. He doesn’t express exactly what has him irked, but instructs us to continue this time into the sunken ship to collect a few more data files. The ship is a creepier sight: everything decrepit, vegetation growing on every surface, and signs of the damage that the vessel must have taken on its way to its doom. So far not a huge amount has happened, but when I collect the last file one of the more unusual creatures (what I assume is from later on in the game – as the developers suggested) appears – a swimming head with razor sharp teeth and glowing blue eyes. It’s pretty spooky, honestly, and really whets the appetite to discover the horrors that lurk below. I also notice that the sharks and other sea life have a strange, zombie-like effect – surrounded by a faint red mist, and covered in cuts. Unfortunately, after collecting this last data file the preview ends rather abruptly, sitting at about 15 minutes.
It’s not the most substantial preview I have played, and as a result it really is difficult to get a good impression of the game (or perhaps not, as a recent interview in indiegamemag with developer Dean Edwards revealed that the game can take around two hours to finish – so 15 to 30 mins is comparatively generous I suppose, not that this helps the situation). But I’m left with a mixed impression. I still like the setting, and feel that with some more polish the swimming and sub driving could be very enjoyable; and the brief glimpse of a later sea monster was quite exciting and intriguing. However, I didn’t really get the impression that the AI was dangerous. I was attacked once by a shark because I swam right into it, but otherwise the AI seems unresponsive. Even the swimming heads just sort of went around in a circle.
The game seems more story driven than mechanical, which is fine; but I dearly hope there is more gameplay variation than just collecting data files, and I am pining for some tense sections avoiding and escaping dangerous creatures. If the full game doesn’t have those, then its story is going to need to be exceptional. I don’t see any evidence that it won’t be – I am still curious about what lurks later in the game (the preview build info sheet I received notes that the horror elements escalate and that optional sub-narratives are not present in the preview, so I am assuming that there is in fact much more to it) – but it’s going to be hard to create more than a shallow experience in such a short title.
That said, Iron Fish is still worth watching out for. If the swimming controls are given a bit more polish, the AI tweaked a bit and there are some more interesting sections with tense encounters later on, then I really think this could be a very unique and enjoyable horror adventure. The game is due to be released in Spring 2016, so there’s plenty of time for the game to really find its feet. Keep an eye out here for more information as it becomes available.