Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Dean Edwards, Beefjack
Review code provided free of charge.
The ocean is a mystifying place, one of terror for many people who fear how its depths could be hiding anything. With so little of it explored compared to the rest of our planet there remains a bit of hope/fear that substantial beasts live where we cannot go. It’s a good choice for a bit of horror and mystery, then.
As Cerys you’re dumped into the sea with your own private little sub and the goal of finding out what’s going on with the aid of Marshall, the near-constant voice on the radio. Working for a private company Cerys begins with an investigation into distress beacons, but unsurprisingly things start to get weird. With just two characters carrying the entire story good writing and superb voice acting is called for, and on that front Iron Fish is….alright. It’s alright. Yeah. The big problem is the lack of a relationship between Cerys and Marshall. The writing hits you over the head a couple of times about how well they know each other, but forgets the old adage of show, don’t tell. It says they know each other, but it doesn’t feel like it. Outside of that both voice actors do a reasonable job with the material they are given. When extreme emotion would be called for Cerys doesn’t always manage to convey the terror you might expect, but overall it’s okay.
Leave the sub and you’ll quickly find out that Cerys is a surprisingly slow swimmer despite her profession, with a frankly lousy technique, and your oxygen supplies deplete very quickly due to the exertion. To resupply you can either scour the area for crates containing oxygen or head back to the sub where holding a button lets you refill your tanks. This obviously creates an interesting scenario where getting out to search for anything limits you quite a bit. The better option is to take the aquajet, a little machine that propels you along much faster than just swimming, and that therefore saves on oxygen, too. With this you can get further faster, although annoyingly its speed is governed by power. Spend too long scooting about and it will get slower, but it’ll never actually stop completely, it’ll just go from thirty knotts to twenty knotts. Exactly why the developers chose to go with this idea is personally beyond me; it slows down exploration in a game that already feels too slow, and serves no other real purpose. If the aquajet would actually stop and thus becoming stranded was possible, I could see why to include it, even if it would make the player have to return to the sub even more, but just having it slow down feels pointless.
In fact there’s a lot that doesn’t make much sense, like having to repair your sub. It makes thematic sense that your little machine can’t take a pounding from angry sharks or just plain bad driving without needing some TLC, but in practice it’s just a case of finding somewhere to stop for a while so you can get out of the sub and use one of the easily found repair kits to fix it back up again. Done. The thing is this is already a slow game with heaps of time-consuming exploration across a quite large world, so having to stop every now and then to fix the sub as well feels like overkill, especially since it doesn’t add very much to the game. I was never concerned about running out of repair kits or getting stuck because there are hundreds, if not thousands, of containers strewn around the ocean floor. Still, it can kill you. If the sub takes enough damage it comes to a halt and you have to jump out to fix it, which often means jumping straight into whatever did the damage in the first place.
But I’m already digressing. At its core Iron Fish is an exploration game sprinkled with horror. Most of the first hour or two is spent looking for other sunken subs scattered along the seabed, with some strange occurrences along the way to keep you interested. To be honest, it’s a weak start since the exploration portion of the game gets boring quite quickly. The initial excitement of an underwater setting vanishes, leaving you with the monotony of swimming around while looking for objects using the RTX scanner that emits beeps. It’s not exactly compelling stuff, nor is it skillful. There are plenty of games that have you simply walking around, exploring the environment, but they keep the player’s interest via beautiful scenery, environmental storytelling or other things. Iron Fish doesn’t have that, and without those things spending large amounts of time swimming around becomes a chore.
Exploration is made more frustrating by the fact that the RTX scanner can’t be used properly when on the faster aquajet. If you equip it before you get on the aquajet it will continue making beeps, but you won’t be able to see the screen. Exploration, therefore, comes down to moving a bit, getting out of the sub or aquajet, scanning and then moving again. Oh, and sometimes Cerys won’t hold the scanner up so to actually see the screen you need to stop and patiently wait for her to raise it, which is hardly ideal when your oxygen supply is constantly draining.
When you combine all of these facts together getting stuff done in Iron Fish can be bloody annoying. If it isn’t your aquajet slowing down to a crawl or stopping to use the scanner then it’s having to get out to repair the sub. As for oxygen it’s a case of far too many containers of it lying around, or none at all. I quite like the idea of having to return to the sub to refill the tanks, but some more balancing needs to be done so that oxygen has to be ferreted out to increase tension.
The horror elements falls flat, too, largely thanks to clumsy animations. It’s hard to take a genetically modified fish seriously when it has a gaping face and comes charging toward you with a laughable noise. That’s if it can even attack you. Sometimes they just spurt around. If you do get attacked by anything it usually results in you spinning on the spot, unable to really do anything while a series of clumsy sound effects attempt to emulate being attacked by something ferocious when really it sounds like you’re being assaulted by Barney the Dinosaur after he’s been on a bender for the weekend. It doesn’t help that enemies frequently clip though you like they have the super ability to pass through living tissue.
That isn’t to say the game fails completely on the horror front. It does have a genuinely good atmosphere that’s supported by the fact that you’re very vulnerable out in the depths. You can’t fight anything head-on, rather your options are to distract it or try to get around. All the while running out of oxygen is a concern, as is the fact that without her aquajet or sub Cerys moves with as much speed as a brick with racing stripes painted on it. It’s a big world out there, and everything in it seems to want to eat your face.
I just wish some of those things that wanted to eat you made a bit more sense. Sharks are the big culprit here, their anger towards you seemingly random. Sometimes you can swim around them without a problem, and the next time they’ll come out of nowhere and send you into a horrible tailspin that either kills you or just takes bloody ages to sort out. The game suggests you stick close to the ground or rock faces to stop sharks swarming, and this does seem to work. Having said that, a lot of the time it also didn’t seem to matter as they ignored me anyway. If you begin bleeding, though, they do become a genuine threat.
What causes that bleeding? Smaller fish! Some are attracted to the bright light of your head torch, while others will stay away when its on, so depending on the situation you’ll need to click it on or off. Clever, right? Well, not really. And it would make a bit more sense if there wasn’t moments when the developers decide that mixing both types of fish together is a smart idea. I got caught in a section where I had to open bag after bag, but couldn’t just to being constantly attacked. I let loose flares nearby to attract one type of fish while I worked, but they failed to react. I even parked by Aquajet and sub nearby and turned on their lights as well. Sadly that didn’t work, either.
There’s a lot of other problems adversely affecting the game, too, such as the fact that the start menu actually needs two presses of the button to bring up, or how getting the options for refilling oxygen and launching the aquajet at the sub can be very fiddly to bring up, making you swimming up, down, left and right until they eventually appear, which is frustrating if you’ve barely got any air left. If you open one of the hundreds of boxes littering the sea floor the game happily informs you that pressing X will grab the oxygen, repair kits or other goodies contained with. It’s lying, though. What actually happens is that you press X and nothing happens, so you press it again and nothing happens. Why? Because the lid is still opening. Other problems include the sub being at 0% hull on returning to it, bad framerate drops, rocks not blowing open correctly, getting stuck in scenery and becoming rooted to a spot because you ventured too far off the edge of the map. Oh, and inexplicably being unable to get back in the sub which occurred multiple times.
The honest truth is that Iron Fish is dull, and I kind of hate myself for saying that. Given its interesting premise I want to like it, and I’m all for a slow-burn mystery game with a generous dose of underwater horror. Iron Fish, though, never scared me. It never felt tense or exciting, and i’s story failed to ever engage me. There’s a sequence involving a monster that represents all of the game’s problems; it isn’t a tense chase or game of hide and seek, instead it’s just an annoying long case of traversing from one area to another until you find what you need while idly avoiding the clumsy beast. It was just so damn dull. It seems Steam is agreeing with me, because Iron Fish is already sinking back into the depths. Hopefully its developers will rise again, though, because they show promise.
That promise manifests itself in some of the visual and audio elements. For a small, independently developed game Iron Fish looks quite nice at times, providing you ignore the animations. The rays of sunlight passing down through the water can be very lovely indeed, and stumbling across the wreck of a ship or large submarine is kind of cool. Meanwhile while some of the audio is just terrible, other parts of it are great, like the low-down rumble of a giant creature.
So to close this review I can’t recommend Iron Fish. With any luck the developers will iron out a lot of its problems in the coming weeks and months, but even then the core of the game just isn’t very exciting or well-executed.