Stirring Abyss Review
Developer: Sleepy Sentry & K-Project Publisher: Slitherine Ltd. Release: 29 October 2020 Reviewed on: PC
Stirring Abyss is a tactical turn-based game with a generous helping of horror and mystery. Most of the moments of horror are Lovecraftian inspired, emphasising the cosmic and mysterious elements, but there are some outright gory scenes to spice up the slow grind of the turn-based battles. In this Stirring Abyss review, I look at some standout and not-so-standout moments of the game and offer my humble opinion based on my time in the abyss.
In Stirring Abyss you are part of the crew of a crashed submarine, horrifically named the USS Salem. In search of your other crew members, you stumble upon traces of a mysterious cosmic horror and realise that the lives of your fellow crew members are tied to solving this mystery. The game takes you on a journey through the dark abyss of the ocean floor, inching ever closer to finding the rest of your crew, and possibly an old and forgotten evil.
Bringing the Abyss to life
The first element I discuss and the strongest part of Stirring Abyss is its fantastic atmosphere. I have to admit that I am not the biggest fan of horror games, and I dislike being scared when I escape to gaming’s virtual worlds. On this note I have to commend Stirring Abyss on creating a well realised and immersive atmosphere, with the aim of intriguing and drawing players in, instead of scaring and freaking us out.
The moments of true and sometimes gory horror are expertly woven into the Lovecraftian narrative, therefore contributing to an even greater level of immersion rather than shocking players. As you progress through the game, the moments of horror steadily increases as you close in on solving the mystery of your missing crew. Throughout the brief campaign, new story elements are consistently introduced as the narrative unfolds, keeping it engaging. The game has a “narrative” option when selecting difficulty, and I would argue that it fits perfectly into Stirring Abyss’s offering. For many gamers, Stirring Abyss will be too difficult even on normal and will dissuade them from completing the otherwise epic narrative.
While the audio design is average, it does a good job of supporting the unique visual style of Stirring Abyss to work together to create the aforementioned atmosphere. Initially, I found the graphical style strange to look at, as each element is quite sharp and especially the characters are in stark contrast to the environment. But as I got used to the style, I enjoyed the visual feedback I got from my actions in the game world.
Combat is a large part of tactical turn-based games, and Stirring Abyss is no exception. You can avoid some encounters, but combat is unavoidable to get through the game. For the most part, I was satisfied with the depth of the combat. If the game took longer to complete, I could see myself being bored with the combat, but at the end of my 13 hour playthrough I was still happily slaying my enemies.
Combat boils down to melee and ranged options. Melee is, well, melee, you can either stab things or with some mutations smack them really hard. There isn’t a great variety in terms of melee combat, and you can choose between around 5 types of melee attacks to dispatch your enemies. On normal and hard, combat is very punishing, and you easily lose characters who are in melee range and fail to land their shots. Even though the options are limited, there is some tactical depth in choosing which melee abilities and attacks you use in combat.
Ranged combat is slightly more exciting. You can choose between a speargun and darts, as well as abilities gained from specific mutations. The speargun is a powerful weapon, and managing your ammo and landing shots is crucial for survival. Darts can be quite powerful in their own right with leveled up characters, but their value lies in their ability to debuff the enemy. One type of dart causes enemies to miss their attacks, and this effect saved me countless deaths during my playthrough. Mutations can add a variety of other ranged attacks and abilities to your arsenal, making the ranged toolkit feel very satisfying to use.
There is little reward for engaging in combat, apart from experience and progressing through certain areas of the game. Enemies drop no loot (only clues which is a currency used to unlock abilities) and sometimes after killing a particularly troublesome enemy I would have liked to see some shinies on the floor. There is also a boss battle or two, and while they are certainly not raid encounters, they offer enough of a challenge to make you think your strategy through before charging into battle.
As I started playing to write this Stirring Abyss review, the mutations were one element of the game I looked forward to experiencing. Mutations are just one way in which you can improve your character, but it is the most interesting method.
There is a decent amount of mutations to choose from and once you have enough points to mutate, you can select from a randomised pool and pick one. I did not count each one, but there are over 10 mutations that you can choose from. The most I had on a single character was four, and it is unlikely that you will have enough points to have that many mutations on each character.
The mutations themselves are quite interesting, ranging from one of your hands mutating into a crab claw to being a host for microorganisms that attack anything that gets close to you. I had a lot of fun building each character and trying to find mutations that complimented their skill set.
There are additional ways to improve your characters, and these include traditional leveling and global upgrades via the Enigma Board.
Leveling is nothing special, and you slowly gain experience to reach a maximum of level 6. With each level you gain, you can choose between two new perks or skills for your character and select the one you like best. While leveling is a standard experience the upgrades you gain really make a difference to your gameplay and they feel satisfying to use in combat. This meant that I constantly monitored my characters to see when they gained a level, as the increased effectiveness was crucial to making good progress.
As already mentioned, the game is very hard, and especially the first few levels are brutal. After gaining a few levels and upgrades, things become easier, but many players may not make it that far as the steep initial difficulty curve can put them off before they uncover the great game hidden underneath.
Another way in which you can upgrade your crew is by buying global upgrades from the Enigma Board. As you play the game, you gather clues by investigating certain objects in each level and by killing enemies. These clues serve as a currency which you can use to buy upgrades that affect all your crew members. These upgrades are quite strong and lowers the difficulty of Stirring Abyss to a manageable level.
I enjoyed the variety on offer with the Enigma upgrades as I had to make the choice between biological upgrades (increased health etc), mechanical upgrades (increased damage), and eldritch upgrades (all the freaky stuff). With the short nature of the campaign, it was quite important to spend my clues effectively, and the payoff was satisfying as my builds came together.
The USS Salem
The last method of leveling up is by restoring and repairing your submarine. Initially, the entire sub is flooded because of the crash and as you drain water from and repair the different rooms, you unlock additional perks. These include small upgrades to health regeneration and sanity restoration, and some larger upgrades such as torpedoes and even a cultic inspired room where you revive your dead crew members.
Managing and restoring your submarine isn’t complex or even very deep, but this management-lite feature made the downtime between levels interesting and rewarding. After each level, I looked forward to doing some upgrades on the USS Salem and gaining the related perk. The torpedoes are invaluable on the higher difficulty levels and saved me from wiping on more than a few occasions.
As I set out to play Stirring Abyss and write this review, I didn’t have massive expectations. Staring into the abyss, it was a pleasant surprise to find a splendid game staring back at me. For the duration of the campaign, I was immersed in the narrative and I enjoyed the combat encounters and character development. A fantastic atmosphere of Lovecraftian horror and mystery supported all of this. As a bonus, there is even an endless mode for those who crave more of the game after they complete the campaign.
I think the steep initial difficulty on the normal and hard modes will scare some players away, but for those who persist, a satisfying gaming experience awaits. Another flaw is that some systems such as corruption level and experience gain are not explained very well, and this may frustrate some players. This is not the end of the world, but detract somewhat from the excellent job done in the other areas of the game.
If you are on the fence about Stirring Abyss, we hope this review helps you make a choice. We definitely recommend playing the game if you are a fan of tactical turn-based games and games with a Lovecraftian setting.
Thanks to Slitherine Ltd. for a Stirring Abyss review key.