The premise for Debris sounds like a direct sequel to James Cameron’s film The Abyss. It is a survival adventure game that takes place deep in the icy depths of the Arctic. Debris is a slow paced thriller that attempts to blend deep stretches of darkness with mysterious aquatic life, intermixed with long bouts of claustrophobia to illicit tension and suspense.
You play as Ryan, a videographer that specializes in underwater shoots. Ryan and his companions Chris and Sonya are shooting a documentary on a special meteor that has crashed in the Arctic ocean. This mysterious space object gives off substantial amounts of heat, and its power can be harnessed. Naturally, there’s a giant corporation after it’s power, and of course, they are the ones who hired Ryan and his crew. In true huge corporation form, there is a lot they don’t tell their employees and before you know it there is an explosion and the team is trapped beneath miles of rock and ice.
One of the crew members becomes entombed far away but is in control of a mobile drone unit known as “the squid”. This aptly named device darts back and forth guiding your journey through various perils. There’s a load of technobabble thrown out at the start–attempting to provide logic and plausibility for humans being able to survive at these depths without being crushed. In essence, the suits are able to keep you alive, but they require power to keep you alive and breathing. Unfortunately, there are no internet cafes, power outlets, or power plants in the frozen depths but there are plenty of meteor fragments the divers call “debris”. The squid unit is able to convert meteor into power, and share it with Ryan’s suit. This symbiotic balance forms the crux of the game’s survival aspect.
Surviving the icy depths of Debris has its moments. Each tunnel you enter is dark and claustrophobic. A constant cracking sounds jarring you out of your thoughts; as if at any moment the glacier walls around you will collapse and seal your fate. Just when the walls begin to close in, suddenly you find yourself overlooking a chasm teeming with strange blue corals and spiky urchins. There’s a careful balance between fighting some of the strange fishes that guard the debris fragments and escaping the large mammoth creatures that simply block your advancement forward. At times you will feverishly rush forward to kill fish attacking the squid unit, other times you are feverishly trying to avoid contact with the power draining denizens of the deep.
Sadly, these tense moments are soon forgotten. Lost in a see of frustrating design choices that take away from what should have been a good sci-fi thriller. One of the biggest issues is a constant inability to see where you are going, or navigate with any kind of purpose. You are completely dependent on the squid device for lights and a semblance of a path. However, the drone will behave erratically very often. At times the unit will zip ahead so far it leaves you in pitch black darkness. Yes, I will follow the minimap only that says to move “left” and keep going through the tunnel. However, it will take some moments to realize I am face first swimming into a rock face, needing to swim either high up or way below into the next chasm. Hitting space is supposed to bring back the unit but that does not always work right away. Often dry-acting Sonya will sound instantly impatient with a “Okay!” as you flail helplessly in the dark.
Navigation issues become much more compounded when you are attempting to dodge giant fish and floating jellyfish platforms. The squid unit will dart with ease through these dangers leaving you in extremely low lighting, or no lighting at all to dodge these power draining behemoths. Worse still in some areas the current pushes you through walls of giant fish and other dangers where you have very little ability to move out of their way. It was probably the developer’s hope that these frantic encounters would lead to some jump scares and adrenaline-inducing piloting. The reality is that these moments simply increase frustration with the game.
Other times there are loud twangs and shrill sounds that signify something scary or important is happening. Too bad that the squid’s lights were pointing at nothing of interest, or had darted too far away to matter. Sonya will drone on emotionless, and say “Did you see that?” to Ryan’s surprised “I sure did!” to my incredulous “See what?!”. Be prepared for a lot of this, also be prepared to do the same thing over and over again ad nauseam. When its time to shoot the smaller fishes and get debris, you will do it 9 times in a row. When it’s time to dodge big fishes, you will do it 9 times in a row. When it’s time to swim through tunnels, well you get the idea. It smacks of lazy or rushed level design, and it can turn you off from continuing. These scripted moments are more like a cheap haunted house ride at the local youth fair with all the strings exposed than a real experience.
Debris is on the right track with some of its story and concepts but fails to deliver an engrossing experience. A lot of its success would have depended on impeccable voice acting, adequate pacing, and less tedium with regards to power balancing schemes. If you are going to tie players to an AI guide, it has to be a smooth and helpful one. Instead, relying on the AI squid unit is like stopping to ask a meth head for directions in the dead of night through a junkyard filled with many sharp rusty edges. Pacing is one thing, staring at sloping white or grey walls in the dark for minutes at a time is not scary nor atmosphere inducing. Which is a shame, as certain aspects of the story compelled me to try and reach its conclusion, but frustrations won me over and I was not able to even finish this title. I do not recommend this title to anyone except those eager enough to make fools of themselves for Youtube viewers as they fake their way through pseudo-horrifying moments.