Ah, the sea. It’s beautiful, vast, full of wonders and probably one of the most frightening places on the planet. Recognising this, Blackpool-based game designer Dean Edwards approached Beefjack in 2014 and the idea for the psychological horror that is Ironfish was born. The team also included lead programmer, Pete Gartside (Psygnosis, Climax), art consultant, Jack Oakman (Realtime Worlds) and many other talented production staff.
Being paralysed by the idea of the sea, and what lurks in it, I was excited to take this preview build for a spin.
At first glance, Ironfish had me short of breath just from the visuals alone. It looks like the ocean, point for point, each colour, shadow and creature taken into account. The game even starts out with some insidiously relaxing music to compliment the gorgeous scenery. Even for a preview that is only about thirty minutes long, I found myself taking the time to watch how the marine life moved. From sharks, to a colony of fish, and a few unfriendly visitors that I do not want to spoil, each had a great amount of realistic animation. The amount of detail put into their movement, and the environment around them, had me on edge already, simply because it felt like I was descending into the depths.
The developers have certainly put their all into studying authentic ocean environments, and one of the initial dangers comes from being out in such realistically open waters. Staying close to the rocks, your submarine or remaining hidden from the hostile marine life is the best way to survive all the lovely sharks eyeing you from a distance. If they get too close you can punch them away, but this tends not to be the best idea: one, water slows down your force quite a bit and two, sharks are not amused at being punched.
With that in mind, what exactly is the catalyst to this adventure? You play as Cerys, a deep sea investigator for a quoted Elite Naval Group. You are sent deep beneath the waves with your government-funded, state of the art submarine to respond to a distress call. Of course, the ocean isn’t exactly hospitable to humans, and the ultimate goal appears to be to reach an abysmal trench to uncover what horrors are lurking in the darkness. A distress call sets the scene, and as if things being wrong in the abyss weren’t bad enough, Cerys will be experiencing an urge to delve deeper into the water – the why of this urge is not clear, just yet.
For players afraid of the sea, sea creatures AND the dark, this game is going to be a thrill ride. Its slow, quiet build-up, combined with the sudden, jarring nature of a few scares is something of beauty. Being so deep down that you can only see by the ray of your thin spotlight, hearing noises from far off, knowing how close death is – it’s all very poignant.
Speaking of far-off noises, the sound design is phenomenal. The muffled noises in the alien depths had me ducking for cover several times. A whale gently baying nearby sounds like a Leviathan come to life, for example.
As insane as Ironfish already is, I hope that the full game will come with some sea monsters further down. The more Cerys descends, the more the psychological horror begins to unfold. Ironfish doesn’t throw abject beasts at the screen or in the distance (yet), but instead focuses on the quiet isolation that comes from drifting down into the unknown. What it does is use the fear of the unknown, the inhospitable and the psychological impact that a journey to the deep can have on a person. That is all just from the preview, of course, as the devs made it clear that there will be more nefarious things at play in the full version.
While I have projected a lot of my own fears onto the game, Ironfish is most definitely a psychological horror that anyone could enjoy. It utilises the alien landscape of the sea to its full advantage, and creates a feeling of dread about what lurks beneath. The darkness is terrifying, but so are the open, balmy waters. It could work on its own as an exploration game and would still maintain the levels of beauty and mystery that it presents – the focus isn’t entirely on the horror aspects, however much their subtlety may be appreciated.
In short, Ironfish is beautiful, horrifying, realistic, nightmarish, fully understanding of psychological horror and scheduled to appear in my nightmares for at least a week. It has a setup, instructions and a huge environment, but the real pull comes from the isolation, the dark and the promise that things are not right the further you dig in; feeling pulled to go continuously deeper. It is certainly an experience, to put it lightly, and one you will not want to miss.