Ahead of this year’s EGX 2015, one of the games we were most looking forward to spending time with was Iron Fish, a psychological deep-sea thriller co-developed by Dean Edwards and BeefJack Studio. The title promises to give players a taste of both the serenity and unbridled terror that lies thousands of feet beneath the ocean surface, and our demo didn’t disappoint.
At its core, Iron Fish sees players assume the role of Cerys, a deep sea investigator for an elite British Naval group who must explore the seabed, solve puzzles and discover the secrets that lurk at the bottom of the ocean. The development team, led by creative director Shaun Leach, have done a stellar job of creating an immersive and realistic underwater experience. Vast, murky environments encapsulate the beauty of the deepest depths of the ocean, while also constantly hinting at the dangers that lie within.
Having spent several minutes simply exploring the ocean from the safety of our sub and taking in all of the sea life on offer, we descended onto the ocean floor, using the controller’s triggers and bumpers like levers in an actual submarine in order to navigate. Once you’ve ‘parked’ your sub on the sand, you can swim around freely to explore otherwise inaccessible areas.
Iron Fish is an intriguing take on the deep-sea exploration genre. While games such as AquaNox allow for players to kit out their submarines with an array of weaponry and armour before taking on the deep unknown, Iron Fish provides you with only a basic one-man sub, with nothing to protect you other than your wits and evasive skills. If that wasn’t unsettling enough, most of the title’s explorative gameplay requires you to leave the safety of your submarine completely, leaving you in the abyss with only a limited oxygen supply and sonar device for company.
With this in mind, the game feels more like psychological horror titles along the lines of Amnesia: Dark Descent, Alien: Isolation and Outlast, whose non-combat approaches ensure players feel helpless and physically outmatched by their enemies, while encouraging them to use their intelligence – through stealth and evasion – in order to survive.
There are several dangers constantly lurking in the depths of the ocean, but perhaps the scariest and most realised is your need for oxygen. With your levels depleting the longer you spend away from your vehicle, an element of strategy comes into play. For example, if your objectives, indicated as markers on your sonar, are spaced far apart, you’ll have to account for a return trip to your submarine, which acts as your safe haven as it has an unlimited supply of oxygen. Otherwise, you’ll risk doing what we did during our first play through: drowning and becoming fish fodder.
Not only that, but you’ll constantly face a number of somewhat more tangible threats as you attempt to piece together the events that led to Cerys’ organisation being called in to investigate in the first place. Although the section we played was designed to introduce us to Iron Fish and thus considerably ‘safer’ than later levels, we were constantly plagued by danger from all angles. The scariest of these was undoubtedly a shark that circled us for a while, before attacking and cracking our visor. Not only was this frightening enough in itself, but the sense of foreboding in seeing the predator’s shadow on the seabed was also more than a little unnerving.
If you’re somehow unconvinced that sharks in themselves could create a genuinely frightening experience (in which case, you’re mad!), Dean hinted that more supernatural elements – and enemies – will come into play as you progress through the game, promising that while it may start off as feeling like Jaws, it ends up being more like Silent Hill by the end.
In Iron Fish, your scanner is your best friend and one of the very few things out there that could save your life. That being said, it’s difficult to swim while holding up a piece of equipment, so you’ll have to be spatially aware in order to stop to check on it. The radar will pick up nearby pieces of interest, while fish can also be scanned to learn more about them. This is particularly useful when scanning predators – though this in itself obviously comes fraught with danger – as it will let you know their weaknesses and potential ways to avoid or escape them should you find yourself on their menu.
The level of research that has gone into the game was apparent even from our relatively short demo; Dean and the BeefJack team have taken a lot of inspiration from nature documentaries to maintain Iron Fish’s maritime accuracy. For example, if you accidentally cut yourself and start bleeding heavily then you’ll attract more sharks, while if you stop swimming completely, they’ll also be prone to attack as they prefer to go for defenceless prey in order to conserve energy. This realism ensures that players suspend their disbelief from the outset, immersing themselves within Iron Fish’s portrayal of the ocean – which will no doubt serve to scare the hell out of them when things start to get a little more weird and unsettling.
Due to its first-person explorative gameplay, breathtaking environments and relatively simple control scheme, we feel Iron Fish would lend itself perfectly to virtual reality – though the team remained tight-lipped on whether this is something they will be looking into in the future.
The Unreal Engine 4-developed game passed through Steam Greenlight in a matter of days back in May, and its full release on PC is planned for early 2016.