You’re (Not) Going To Need A Bigger Boat
Underwater horror is a niche genre that really deserves more exploration- no pun intended. Aside from space, our ocean floors are among the final frontiers. To this day new discoveries are being made about our planet that both enrich our perspectives of our tiny blue dot as well as deepen our reserves and fear of the unknown. Creating a game in this atmosphere should be a no-brainer. Darkness, isolation, sensory deprivation, and bone tapping cold are generally things a sane human being would not expose themselves to on any day. Tie that all together with being cut off from the most essential component for life – air – and you have a terror rich experience that is begging to be played. Iron Fish started strong here, but sadly the experience floundered (no pun intended) pretty early into gameplay.
In Iron Fish you…well, to be honest, it’s very unclear what exactly it is you’re doing in Iron Fish. You play as a young English woman named Cerys, that much is certain. Cerys (Kar-is) talks to a man named Marshall through what one can presume to be some sort of head set via her underwater pressure suit. Marshall gives you instructions through the tutorial phase of Iron Fish by letting the player know how to operate their sub, access their menu options, and how to use tools. After that he’s sort of a nagging fatherly figure with the personality of a cardboard cut out (and on that note, Carys isn’t much better). Cerys works for a company that dumps a lot of funds into underwater exploration for…reasons, and is out looking for some downed subs from a competitor industry, also for reasons. The Iron Fish website doesn’t even really explain the plot other than that this is an underwater psychological horror game. What is strange though, is the name. Iron Fish was the name for submarines that the Navajo code talkers used during World War II (there’s a history knowledge drop for you), so why, or even if that is a reference to the fact that the player is usually putting around the ocean in a submersible is kind of odd. Then again, so is the rest of the game.
Iron Fish had some pretty big frame rate drops after the first forty-five minutes of play, and load-ins were often wiped when restarting a game in the middle of a mission. Meaning items such as oxygen, flares, repair kits and more that were not picked up immediately upon the close of one game were somehow wiped off of the map when coming back a few days later. This is kind of a big issue as the player needs these items in order to survive since many missions take you quite far from your submersible. The navigation controls were layered as well, meaning that while in the sub WASD serves as your typical directional controls while the mouse permits the player to simply look around while inside of the sub. This shouldn’t be necessary as a good portion of the sub’s cockpit gives you full vision of your surroundings. If you wish to ascent or descend, press either Q or E and wait. However, if you leave the sub the mouse becomes your directional control during navigation. Response times are agonizingly slow, by the way, but thankfully so is everything that stalks you on the ocean floor.
Sharks seem to be the biggest issue in the first half hour of Iron Fish. You are advised by Marshall to stay close to rock walls and the sea floor to avoid being “swooped in on” by surrounding sharks. This earns the game its only real point of cleverness as it makes a very out of place Dragon Age: Origins reference with Cerys replying “Yes, swooping is bad.” It is not specified as to whether this “swooping” will take place while outside of the submersible or while still inside of it. You’re left to find out for yourself. Hint: It’s both. If you either swim or drive your sub out into the open with sharks nearby your sub will be hit, jarring the whole thing off of its trajectory and alignment causing the player to become disoriented and the submersible to spring leaks that you will have to get out and repair, all while the sharks continue with their swooping.
Apparently it is entirely within safety standards to make deep sea submersibles out of material only slightly stronger than paper mache.
You are looking for other subs that are known to have gone down in the area. As to why, it’s not precisely clear. Plot development is not a strong point in this game. What makes it worse is that neither of the voice actors for this game seem to be dialed in above a three, and the painfully barren environments that the player is exposed to over the first hour leave a lot to be desired. Let’s be clear, Iron Fish is in part an exploration game, but the exploration element is honestly more than a little boring which is quite sad. Subnautica did this so well, proving that one giant environment could be varied and beautiful while at the same time being overwhelmingly terrifying.
It takes about two to three hours before the game teases a glimmer of a deeper plot, which is almost unforgivable. The fact that we have only been, up to this moment, finding mangled bodies and sunken ships in shark infested waters is not terribly frightening or even intriguing, and if it was meant to be it was very cheap. What does pique the interest is the discovery of a Nordic artifact near the broken body of the last sub and its operator. Immediately afterward you are attacked by what looks to be Hannibal Lector with his infamous mask. The screen prompts you to rapidly press a button that, while it looks like the space bar, may not be since it’s not aptly labeled. That being said, as quickly as the monster appears he is gone, without animation or sound to signify his leaving, literally disappearing off of the screen which is incredibly frustrating. This game, as far as one can tell from the Steam page, is complete. It is not early access, not in Beta testing, nothing. So the fact that the animations are so bad to virtually non existent at times is very poor game design.
Examples of this and other shortcomings are evident throughout the game. Sharks are poorly animated, and virtually all of the marine life clips through both the environment and the cockpit of the submersible. The lighting that is provided from flashlights and on board flood lights are virtually useless as they highlight only small areas and have rapidly depleting battery life that when left alone merely only need to recharge. Instructions are vague or altogether absent at times. Worst of all, the game doesn’t even obey its own rules as sometimes in game tools go past their “dead battery” point along with the small jetty you use to get around where the sub cannot take you. There are times when the subtitles do not match what is being spoken. These are small things, but they compound over time and tend to show a lack of attention from the developer. However, none of these things by themselves or together are reason enough to write the game off entirely.
Overall, Iron Fish bares promise. What it lacks in polish, narrative, and environments it makes up for in gumption and attitude. This game really tries to knock your socks off, and it’s a shame that it fails because it’s so close to being something better than what it is. Unfortunately things just take too long; too long to discover, too long to develop, and it takes the player too long to care.
The good news is that the developer dedicates 50 pence of every game sold to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation charity. Click here and read about the developer for more information on that.
Final Verdict: 2/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Meat Name Games Ltd. ; Developer: Beefjack ; Players: 1 ; Released: October 25, 2016; ESRB: E for Everyone; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Iron Fish given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.