Atmosphere and a cool story can sometimes override any gameplay issues I might have. Kind of a silly thing to say when it is still a piece of interactive fiction, but popular examples like BioShock Infinite show that sometimes the actual gameplay can be overlooked. Unfortunately for BSK Games’s Anoxemia, there just isn’t enough of the story to waive any concerns that exist in how the game plays. With a dense atmosphere and an ominous, foreboding feeling that not everything is what it seems, Anoxemia sets itself up to be an interesting narrative, but is far too bogged down by loose controls that it makes most of its precise maneuvers and potentially fatal hazards feel cheap and insufferable.
I pretty much disliked Anoxemia right from the beginning. One of its key mechanics involves a probe called ATMA, which essentially serves as your cursor and is actually the thing you’re controlling – not Doctor Bailey, the scientist who is tasked with finding samples in the depths of the ocean. Why this is such a problem is that ATMA is not the one threatened with death at any moment. He just leads the way and Bailey follows. It’s somewhat neat having this meta-approach to player interactivity (a larger conversation definitely exists about what it means to control someone else). The novelty wears off fairly quickly even though it is hinted at pretty strongly that ATMA directing Bailey may mean something grander to the story. And while I think the pay off isn’t bad, it also doesn’t make up for the amount of times Bailey got caught on something or moved into a hazard.
It’s not that often that controls bother me this much, but someone thought it was a good idea to not only make this an entire game underwater (the worst sequences of any video game), but the entire gameplay essentially devolves into one long escort mission (the worst missions of any video game). It doesn’t do anything to make that less painful to endure. It’s also one of those games where it taunts you with death at any instance it gets. But unlike Dark Souls where it feels like the only thing that is killing you is yourself and your own inability to pay attention or be patient, Anoxemia places an Oxygen meter on Bailey, and an Energy meter on ATMA. And then it has Bailey, the one you don’t control directly, be the one that has more ways to die.
The reason the Oxygen meter and Energy meter is such a concern is because they actually transfer over from level-to-level. With 38 missions to go through, there is rarely replenishment between missions. This makes Anoxemia more survival-based than it really ought to be, because once again, it’s not so much about your surviving, it’s about Bailey surviving. I found myself in a predicament when I was on a later level, closer to the end of the game, and then realized I had many a minute of oxygen left before Bailey died. The level would take easily two minutes or more (as I later found out), making it actually impossible to complete because no oxygen tanks were present in the previous mission, or in the current one. Fortunately, the game allows you to go back to a certain mission and begin from there, so I jumped back two levels and it rectified my situation. If I wasn’t reviewing this game, I’d have quit.
There really isn’t enough of a story hook here to make anyone continue through such unfair torture. When it gets to its finale, it’s satisfying. There are a couple moments throughout where you get more prominent hints at what’s happening. They’re really cool, too. Story beats are often just background noise though, as Bailey provides dialogue that hints at what is happening without him really knowing what that is. There’s also a lot of text that appears on-screen as you traverse the ocean floor, providing that ominous feeling that someone is watching and judging you. That stuff is all handled well.
The entire presentation of the game is very neat, with a pretty minimal but fitting score to serve as an undertone to the game’s underwater ambience. As the action begins happening, a faster but still low-key score kicks in and wipes away just as quickly. My recommendation is to definitely wear headphones when playing because Anoxemia feeds off of its atmosphere. It’s a very dark-looking game, but it has enough moments where that never feels like a hindrance. There are enough visual cues as to where a hazard is or what it does that I never really ran into issues distinguishing what was going to kill me. The issue is that I rarely felt it was my fault that it killed me.
Most of the game has you manoeuvring throughout corridors of rock and steel, as you discover the secrets of what lies beneath the ocean surface. There’s lots of precise movement required and environments are often littered with things that will drain either energy, oxygen, or just straight-up kill you. There are even some risk/reward systems put in place where you can eliminate some hazards with a shockwave that will drain some of your energy quicker, or you can have a short burst of speed that drains your energy faster. These are neat things to have in the game, and I actually do enjoy the amount of restrictions put on the player because they all make sense. I just think that the controls and core mechanic (an escort mission) compound to make a frustrating experience.
Those willing to give Anoxemia a try for its story and atmosphere will probably enjoy those aspects, but it will be hard not to feel frustrated with how little narrative is given to you versus dangerous gameplay. It is really such a bummer because there is a tone that is struck so well in its atmosphere that lends itself to the story’s great reveal. Environments feel necessarily difficult to get through and though there are very few moments of tension, there are tons of moments where you feel oppressed by some greater force. Unfortunately, you’re more likely to be oppressed by the game’s mechanics and controls, which reduces Anoxemia to a very disappointing experience.
A PS4 Review Copy of Anoxemia was provided by BSK Games for the Purpose of this Review
- Presentation is great
- Story is ominous and ends on a satisfying note
- There are neat ideas present in this game
- Those loose, floaty controls are not good
- Not enough story to hook anyone that gets too frustrated with the game
- It's an underwater escort mission where if your escort dies, you die. That's not fun.