Estimated reading time: 9 minute(s)
On a whim, I downloaded Under: Depths of Fear for the Nintendo Switch. The game was 50% off at the time I purchased it and I had some interest in it after seeing a few clips of the gameplay that the developer posted on TikTok. From what I saw, the game reminded me of Layers of Fear, a different indie horror game that I enjoyed. Because I was looking for a quick distraction, I purchased the game without reading any reviews. While I had some hope that Under: Depths of Fear would be enjoyable, those hopes were slowly dashed throughout the game.
(The final section of this article turned into a review of an episode of the Twilight Zone for some reason…for those who are not interested in games generally.)
Under: Depths of Fear – Review
Under: Depths of Fear partially lived up to its horror billing as a horror game by setting a creepy atmosphere, and including few genuine jump-scares, but the experience was marred by glitches and repetitive, frustrating game-play. The game was not saved by its story, which left much to be desired.
I discuss the mechanics of the game and some specific puzzles – but the only significant spoilers are found in “The Sloppy Story” section of this review – where I appended a specific spoiler note. While I ultimately recommend that you do not buy Under: Depths of Fear unless you’re a game desire wanting to learn from the mistakes of others, you may consider this your spoiler warning if you have it on your to-play list notwithstanding my negative review.
The opening of Under: Depths of Fear reminded me of two games that I very much enjoyed: the aforementioned Layers of Fear and Star Wars: Knights of The Old Republic II, both of which began with a similarly eerie atmosphere. The player character in Knights of The Old Republic II wakes up in a hospital bed on an empty, damaged spaceship with no memories – and you are left to piece together what happened and who you are. The beginning of Depths of Fear is similar, only differing in that it is set on what appears to be a ship instead of a spaceship and there is some evidence that another individual rolled the player character to the starting location. In both cases, the player is left utterly alone and faced with the same tasks: escape and self discovery.
The visuals in Under: Depths of Fear look dated. However, that is not something that I am particularly concerned with when it comes to horror games. Subsequent reading of reviews of this game revealed many found this a major deterrent to the experience, whereas I disagree. Quite a bit can be accomplished in creating an eerie atmosphere without high-end graphics and special effects. My colleague, Nicholas A. Ferrell, noted this in his review of an indie sound novel called Night of the Forget-Me-Nots. This applies to other forms of media as well. For example, I find the original Twilight Zone television show to be much more unsettling than most modern shows which benefit from today’s technology and special effects. It is not uncommon for creators to become lost in creating hyper realistic visuals and neglect the plot and atmosphere.
The mechanics were enjoyable enough at the beginning of Under: Depths of Fear. I enjoyed the discover-as-you-go game play in the early stages of the game: finding unlocked doors, keys, notes, and other clues. You discover matches, but you must use them carefully because you only have access to a limited amount. On occasion, the player comes across record players which play interviews with what sounds like a shell-shocked soldier (the exaggerated accents took a bit away from the intended effect, however).
It did not take long for the game’s flaws to reveal themselves.
Like many games of its kind, Under: Depths of Fear gradually introduces the player to new mechanics. For example, the game explains that the player can shove an item of furniture by running into it. However, I found that these mechanics did not apply to every like object. As a result, I found myself running into items of furniture to use the mechanic that the game had introduced, only to find that I could not interact with most pieces of furniture. It was also difficult to accomplish this task on items that actually were actually movable, so I’d have to constantly revisit smashing my head into things.
While I did not have a problem with the dated graphics in an aesthetic sense, the graphics, combined with the game’s inconsistent mechanics, did cause problems. Early in the game, there are prompts to indicate to the player which items in a room he or she could interact with. However, the game eventually stops supplying those clues, leaving the player to observe each room to determine which objects were relevant to the game-play. In light of the fact that the rooms are repetitive and largely look the same, it was often frustrating to parse each room and try to make out the modern typeface on in-game signs.
The inconsistent mechanics are one of the biggest knocks on the game. I never knew when I came across a repeating dresser whether I would be able to interact with it, or interact with one identical part of it after having interacted with another. As a result, the game forces the player to approach everything and randomly press buttons in the hope that he or she stumbles on the right place to click.
Skinner box repetition.
I learned that the player can die in Under: Depths of Fear.
The first time the game noted that death was possible, it provided an explanation of how to avoid dying. Those explanations came fewer and farther between. There were cases where it is obvious what the player needs to do to avoid death. For example, if the water is rising in a sinking ship, logic suggests that he player should seek the high ground.
Then the game introduced a monster, which I will not go into depths describing as to keep spoilers to the end of this article. I found this a sincere knock against the game, as you are now no longer alone. The sense of isolation and impending doom of drowning in the ship was more than enough – the monster was unnecessary. The monster killing you was also unnecessary, as it took me out of the illusion that we may be trapped in the protagonists mind. Layers of Fear dealt with this issue well, as in moments where you get caught by something spooky and menacing, you are simply moved to another room and don’t get to complete the gameplay of the room you’re in. Here, the screen actually reads “dead,” which was unsatisfying.
Originally the game explains how to avoid death by said monster, which while repetitive mechanically, I obliged.
However, imminent death became less obvious as the game went on – and I found this to be consistently annoying. I have no problem with dying in games if the death is my fault. I do have a problem with dying to learn how to avoid a death that I would have had no way of avoiding in the first instance but for pure luck. There was no way to know that I needed to take a step to the right to avoid being buried by a wall of water. Moreover, I had no way of knowing that I needed to close a door behind me to avoid being attacked by a monster when the game had never allowed me to close a door before.
The effect of these unexpected deaths was to turn the game into an adventure of trial and error. I was forced to play chapters over and over to learn what I needed to avoid – being pushed to the point of rage-quitting.
(I was pushed forward by the fact that my co-writer would appreciate another article that came from my TikTok addition as well as my playing this game instead of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, which he gave to me for my birthday in 2020.)
After I died a number of times while reading clues, I decided to stop reading clues entirely. What began as an exploration game turned into a game of hide-and-go-seek on a map that did not support this kind of game play. This was all in an effort to reach a new save point so I would not have to replay a large part of the level after my next death.
The thought of abruptly dying and having to re-run through the same endless mazes of hallways that I had just survived was what made Under: Depths of Fear a true horror game.
The Glitches of Fear
After fighting inconsistent mechanics and unexplained hazards, I was excited to encounter glitches. In one instance, I walked through the floor – falling off the map and into the bones of the game. The only solution to that puzzle was to re-start my Switch, which of course cast me back to my most-recent save point when I resumed the game. I was equally as excited to attempt to walk the other direction, to meet the same fate of viewing the ship from beneath the actual game. I still don’t quite know how this was avoidable, but after discovering I could shove an object I could never shove before, I was able to reach the next save point.
Spoilers: Strange Story
Spoiler Reminder: This section contains some significant spoilers about the story. If you do not wish to read the spoilers, please skip to the next secion: “Conclusion: Largely a Failure.”
As the game’s imperfections revealed themselves, I hoped that it would be saved by an engaging story. Unfortunately, those hopes were dashed.
The story of Under: Depths of Fear was strange and sloppily written.
Note that I will include spoilers in this section, so consider yourself fairly warned. Skip to the “Conclusion: Largely a Failure” section to avoid story-specific spoilers.
If my understanding of the story is correct, the player is a World War I soldier who deserted and was sentenced to death as a result. The player seems to have been given the opportunity to join “the second life act” – which seemed to be a program in which soldiers were brought back to life in an unexplained manner.
Did they kill the soldier and resurrect him? It was not entirely clear. Why would they waste this anachronistic technology on someone who they were executing?
The story was poorly explained and did not make much sense. The game would have been better had the soldier merely deserted and then was left to deal with the consequences, and the game play was his brain coping with the guilt. It would have even been better with no real story at all compared to what they went with. The story that was included took away from the game’s atmosphere.
Ultimately, the player character discovers that all of the notes in the game were about him, and all of the recordings were his own voice. The player was in an asylum – reliving his horror over and over again, which at one time placed him on a ship where he was the sole survivor. The player is rolled back into the room where the game began. Had I had any desire to re-play the game, it may have been interesting to see the story unfold knowing what was going on.
Conclusion: Largely a Failure
Under: Depths of Fear did a good job on setting the atmosphere, which to their credit I throughly enjoyed. Unfortunately, it failed at just about everything else.
Having done well on the creepy part, the game would have done well to dropped the dying mechanism and constructed a less strange story. In light of the game’s focus on exploration at the start, it would have also benefited from consistent mechanics and item behavior.
After reaching the conclusion, I looked up some reviews of the game to see if others shared my opinion. Andrew Farrell wrote a review at PC Invasion that summarized the experience up well: “Under: Depths of Fear is exactly what you’d picture when you hear ‘bad indie horror game’ used in a sentence.”
Digression: Enter The Twilight Zone
I referenced The Twilight Zone earlier as an example of how it does not take much to create a creepy atmosphere. A simple story and the good use of modest resources will do.
One of the best examples of what The Twilight Zone could accomplish is an episode called “The Invaders” – which aired on January 27, 1961.
The episode took place in a small farm house in a desolate location. The story progressed with no dialogue whatsoever. The camera follows an old woman who was dressed shabbily and appeared to live alone with no technology. She discovered a small spaceship on her roof.
Viewers watch in horror as the woman discovered that the ship carried tiny space men approximately six-inches high. The aliens, which reminded me of tiny windup robots, attempted to harm the woman. Viewers root for the woman as she attempts to defend herself, even managing to kill one, before hacking at the spaceship with an axe.
The episode ended with the first instance of dialogue. A man yelled in English that his partner was dead and that the planet was inhabited by giants. He told whoever he was talking to that he and his party were doomed and that the mission must be abandoned.
The camera then panned to show “U.S. Air Force” written on the side of the ship. It then became clear that the episode set viewers up to root for the monster.
The Invaders was a genuinely horrifying episode – but remarkably simple. It relied on atmospheric horror, creepy music, and a simple-but-satisfying twist at the end.
You do not need much to be scary.