n. An abnormal reduction in the oxygen content of the blood.
I have both a profound love and fear of the ocean. Nothing is more rewarding than a reef dive in tropical waters, yet nothing is as terrifying as a night dive in the chilly Pacific. Our vast ocean, with its capricious nature and mysteriously dark depths, provides one of the best settings for a horror scenario, and that’s exactly what BSK Games tried to utilize with Anoxemia. Can this 2D horror live up to scrutiny, or will we find it swimming with the fishes?
Under Da Sea
Anoxemia’s story, delivered via comic strip cutscenes and a voiced narrative, focuses around the survival of a pink-mustachioed Dr. Bailey. Tasked with collecting tainted plant life on the ocean floor, Dr. Bailey must traverse the perilous depths of sea caverns, shipwrecks (including his own submarine), and forgotten mine fields from wars past. Players control the scientist’s undersea drone ATMA, and must guide Dr. Bailey through his journey under the waves. Seeking out oxygen and power cells, discovering the abnormal plant life, and fending off rabid drones and sea life all fall under the player’s responsibility, and it soon becomes obvious that there are darker elements at work here. Should Bailey continue to trust the player? What’s the significance of the pink mustache? Mystery abounds..
Getting the Bends
Anoxemia’s core gameplay can be summed up as one large escort mission. Players, in the form of the ATMA drone, must quickly and carefully navigate around a multitude of obstacles in order to get the tagalong scientist to safety, and it’s rarely an easy task. Each of the 38 levels end after a checkpoint has been reached or a certain number of collectibles have been found, but each one comes with the restraint of constantly needing oxygen and power cells. When you aren’t frantically searching for the next contaminated algae patch, you’re focused on finding tech upgrades for your spherical body, providing add-ons such as a harpoon gun, increased oxygen and battery life, or a zapping defense. Every level is a race against time, if that race also game with a massive sack of rocks that followed you everywhere and drew the attention of every enemy.
While ATMA maneuvers fairly smoothly (much more so with the controller compatibility), the aforementioned sack-of-rocks Dr. Bailey flops around the ocean floor with complete and utter disregard for personal safety. While you may be able to fit between the ceiling and a floating mine, the good doctor certainly won’t, and you’ll soon find he’s about as impervious to any damage as a steak is impervious to my dog. Explosions, evil drones, sea creatures, and literal anoxemia are all a threat to Dr. Bailey, and the whole adventure turns into a rather stressful babysitting experience.
Coming Up For Air
Which brings me to my only major quip with the game, which is actually summarized as the final bullet point on the game’s store page: “Game is hard.” Where many games offer timed events or escort missions as a single, sometimes repeated mechanic during the overall gameplay experience, this little gem dares to employ both at the same time for the entire ride. This may seem a touch more manageable if we only had one quantity constraint to worry about, but Anoxemia is a harsh mistress and forces us to monitor the oxygen levels of our errant doctor pal and our own power levels, both of which require the gathering of different types of resources. This occurs all while we avoid local dangers and search for the actual goal of each mission, successfully turning every level into a nail-biting competition.
What this means, for those of you scoffing at a difficulty-based complaint, is that many of these levels will be a trial-and-error run. You will not successfully navigate the twists and turns of a sunken submarine in pitch black without running out of oxygen on your first try, nor will you breeze by it on your second or third, most likely. There’s nothing wrong with a little challenge, surely, but the short narratives between every handful of levels are hardly a worthy reward, regardless of how many clones I come across or hallucinations I suffer. If I’m going to doggy paddle through the same level eight times because I had to feel out each nook and cranny with my face before finally drowning again, the light at the end of the tunnel damn well better have some meaningful motivation.
10,000 Leagues Under The Sea
The 2-D scrolling nature of the game is perfect for the environment crafted in Anoxemia. As a certified diver who actually has had his share of lava tubes and sunken ships, I can absolutely attest to the crushing blackness that the game tries to emulate with the limited amount of light and visual penetration. Players can see just about everything within a ten foot radius if all the lights are working, and even less if there’s a predestined power failure. The end result culminates in a very claustrophobic sense of panic and entrapment, and it is a feeling that can be utilized in almost every level (the occasional collapsing walls help).
The game’s audio is sparse, and while I understand there is no theme music playing under the sea, it’s a common misconception to assume you can’t hear anything except your own breathing – there’s almost constantly a strange crinkling noise in real diving, and with the amount of times Bailey slams into cave walls and bulkheads, the clanging of his oxygen tank would be nigh unbearable. These is, however, a petty complaint born of real life experience, and I can easily let it go and say the lack any noise save for occasional breathing and a quavering narrative sets the horror scene rather well.
You can check out the first few levels in my Let’s Play above!