With 10 levels released, along with several challenge modes, the early access for Hidden Deep is here. Its proven to be strong release with great mechanics and a satisfyingly tense setting. With about 6 – 7 hours of gameplay available it’s safe to say that we have a reasonably good idea of what to expect from this game. Lukasz Kaluski of Cogwheel Software, the solo developer behind the project, has described it as “the biggest project of my life into which I put all my heart and sweat”. This certainly shows, as does his 80s and 90s horror influences such as “Alien” and “The Thing”. However, are the limitations too much for this game to really hit its potential and join the pantheon of great games by small teams such as Braid?
The Story – a Suboceanic Mystery
The story has potential, but it is by and large missing from the Hidden Deep early access. You control members of a rescue expedition headed to a mining and research facility at the bottom of the sea that has gone silent. Researchers there were investigating mysterious anomalies and collecting a blue mineral for, as of yet, undisclosed purposes. You must explore a mile under the ocean floor, dealing with monsters and technical issues within the facility.
It’s a classic, but effective, starting point for the story. The game claims to have an “immersive dark sci-fi story” which pays tribute to 80s and 90s movies and games. However, from what I’ve seen the story is largely window dressing. The facility is full of monsters, with the occasional dead body strewn about. There is also some the environmental story telling. But this mostly just applies to your immediate mission. In regard to actual plot or further information you get very little.
Terminals have brief emails between co-workers, but these don’t have much more to go on than ‘something bad is happening, we locked the doors, the code is ****.’ These terminals are a prime location to give us some details and background on the story while keeping it more in the realm of show don’t tell. Beyond radio calls that tell you your immediate goals and a couple short bits of dialogue from the player character right at the end you won’t be getting much more story than what you can get from the trailers.
Intentionally Kept in the Dark?
All this being said, there is room for you be kept in the dark. There is an oppresive feel to Hidden Deep, the preview has you playing numerous workers being sent to their deaths. The boss tells you only what you need to know which is fitting. I like that it ends with a death counter, it adds to the feeling that you are expendable and insignificant. There is often this feel to horror/thrillers coming out of Eastern Europe and it can be wonderfully effective when done well.
But is this enough to fill the space by having blank slate characters and minimal exposition? At the moment, no. There really needs to be more to the mystery to pull gamers in. I’m hoping that the story is just hidden deep in the game, but so far it is lacking. After 10 levels and 7 hours of play, I would hope to have a better idea of where the game is going story wise.
The Gameplay – Shooting and Spelunking
The gameplay is where the Hidden Deep early access really shines. It’s what holds the game together despite the limitations in other areas. It’s a 2D action/exploration-platformer. You control engineers and scouts, who can operate machinery and use a grappling hook to explore respectively. At times you will need to switch between multiple characters. Through them you explore the mines, fend of monsters and solve puzzles. Depending on the difficulty you will have 20, 7, 1 or 0 extra lives. Those extra lives were needed given the hostile tunnels and spelunking disasters I was prone to.
In Hidden Deep‘s Early Access you spend most of your time exploring the sizable maps. Explosives and tunnel boring machines link paths and access new areas. The grappling hook has you abseil into danger like you’re in Rainbow Six or swing across caverns like a subterranean Spiderman. Furthermore, the gameplay and verticality of the map makes the game feel less linear. The maps typically aren’t as daunting or complicated as they first seem, but with many paths you are left to figure it out for yourself
The gameplay is fun and addictive. It was a blast mainly because of the grappling hook. This is your best friend, to point where ladders will often go unused. Monsters add a level of planning and danger and the cave exploration feels satisfying as you fill in your mini map. You have equipment to help you on your way. A small drone can map out the area when you don’t know which way to go. You also have a scanner which shows you tunnels under the ground that you can blast into.
The Monsters that Dwell Below
The monsters have some interesting AI features, for example the spiders will scuttle faster at you when your spotted which can give you a bit of a fright, as well as having a last ditch leap that can make you jump. The ceiling monster is a great addition so keep your eyes open unless you want to be snatched into the roof. It’s like being in the bug scene from King Kong.
Hidden Deep’s gameplay fits in nicely with the feel of the game. Making your way through cramped tunnels with the sound of monsters scurrying around works well to create a feeling of isolation and apprehension.
The main downfall the Hidden Deep early access gameplay has, other than the occasionally buggy ai, is the lack of monster variety. So far there are: Fliers/Maggots, Spiders and the Ceiling Monster. Hopefully by launch we will have more monsters. It’s a bit repetitive killing the same monsters in the same way. Hidden Deep is screaming for a stalker enemy like its inspirations. This would really make the most out of the dark and damp caves. That being said, there is hope. Screen shots on discord suggest at least a few more monsters, videos from Hidden Deep’s youtube channel show a creature similar to The Thing, as well as something like a mini Sarlaac pit. However some of these are from years ago and so could have been cut.
Aspects that need Tightening up
There are problems however. Most of these could feasibly be ironed out by the time it’s released. The development team has proven reactive to criticism, which is a promising sign, for example increasing the amount of supplies in some areas to prevent soft locks.
There are issues with some of the physics, for example the crane cables used to transport vehicles are too loose, leading to your character and machines being launched or dropped a frustrating number or times. This is problem as you may have to restart a level over and over. There are other minor issues such as not being able to climb knee high walls. Sometimes you can jump them, but it seems strange to not be able to vault them.
Another issue is the lack of commands available to give to the multiple characters you control. All you can tell them to do is to run left or right until they can’t anymore. You will often be going back and forth to drag your squad across the map. A follow option and a defense mode are both needed. At the moment you are likely to have a character die because he is just standing there being slowly eaten.
Graphics and Audio – The Sights and Sounds
The game has highs and lows when it comes to the graphics and audio. The character and monster models are well detailed for a 2D game. The website states that they used motion capture as a base. The tunnels and mine shafts have detailed backgrounds and a good sense of art direction. The game also has some astounding bits of artwork for the background at times.
The problem with this is that these are few and fair between. Most of the time you will be in tunnels that, whilst looking good, pretty much all look the same. It is a shame because the backdrops I have seen in the preview are great and add a lot to the world building and design.
Similarly, the audio has a mix of good and bad elements. The music is pretty uninspired. Other than one level it was pretty much the same low droning tones. It’s not bad, it’s just not particularly good. Whilst it doesn’t interfere with the experience, it’s an area that could be improved to really ratchet up the tension.
The sound design is strong otherwise. All equipment and background noises sound nice and realistic. Your guns loud bang will have animals crawling and flying out the tunnels towards you. There is also the little things like the sound of the spiders moving around adds a layer of tension as you don’t know what direction they may be coming from. It works well with the gameplay and map design to create that feeling of isolation and threat around every corner. It’s worth playing with headphones to get the most out of the experience.
Hidden Deep‘s Early Access was previewed on Steam, with a key provided by Daedalic Entertainment.