Unfinished Business is NME’s new column about the weird and wonderful world of Early Access Games. This week, Rick Lane braves the depths of an abandoned research lab to play spooky horror-platformer Hidden Deep.
Hidden Deep sells itself with a tantalising premise – an atmospheric 2D horror game that takes place in an abandoned research facility deep beneath the ocean floor. The developers cite inspiration from films like Aliens and The Thing. Yet while these sources are both evident and effective in Hidden Deep, the horror isn’t what makes Cogwheel Software‘s game interesting. Beneath the dark and grisly aesthetic is a game about solving delightfully physical logistics puzzles, which often result in your character falling to their death in ways that probably shouldn’t be as hilarious as they are.
The story revolves around the classic Aliens setup. A totally not-suspicious research lab has gone dark after around two years of operating a mile beneath the ocean floor. You assume control of a team charged with descending into the facility and investigating the reason behind its radio silence, although I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the scientists haven’t just gone for a really long nap.
Hidden Deep starts out as a simple but pleasingly tactile platformer. In the first level, you control a lone soldier armed with a pistol, tasked with exploring a cave network. Character movement is physics-based, which means your character picks up momentum as they move, and all actions have a tangible weight behind them. Your soldier is also fairly fragile; any drop of more than a few feet will see them splatter across the ground like a dropped Bolognese.
Hence, getting around the tunnels and shafts that surround the facility requires use of a grappling hook, which helps you navigate drops safely, climb to higher platforms, and create ziplines to cross otherwise impassable gaps. A satisfying tool to use, the grappling hook is a hint of what’s to come as Hidden Deep opens up. The second mission introduces more gadgets, such as a terrain scanner that lets you search for narrow cave walls, and explosive charges that let you create your own paths. It also sees you take control of a second character who you must alternate between.
But it’s the third level where Hidden Deep fully reveals its concept. Here, you control three characters as you attempt to clear a tunnel to access a new section of the facility. This requires the use of a heavy-duty boring machine, which must be carefully lowered on a crane through a transport shaft. You must carefully do this while being harassed by the various critters lurking in the tunnels, requiring you to alternate between engineers who pilot the machinery, and soldiers to deal with the monsters.
What results is a splendid physics-based puzzle, combining the oppressive atmosphere and tactile 2D puzzling of Playdead‘s Inside with the industrial horror of, say, Dead Space. Indeed, what I like most about Hidden Deep is how it leans into that idea of solving infrastructural problems in a horror scenario, letting you get hands-on with tools and machinery in a way that Dead Space never did.
In short, I dig Hidden Deep. But there’s certainly room for improvement in the current Early Access build. Aesthetically it’s a dull affair. Most of the game takes place in grey and brown caverns, all of which look very similar to one another. Occasionally you’ll stumble into a larger, more interesting space, such as a giant underwater machine that turns your character into mush if they stay near it for too long. Mostly though, visual variety is limited to different coloured patches of moss on your cave walls.
I also don’t think much of the enemy designs. Most of the early game is spent fighting these fucked-up fleshbirds that give birth to parasitic leeches mid-flight. While disgusting, both the leeches and the worms are more annoying than frightening to fight. The giant worm that ambushes you from the ceiling is more interesting, but encounters with it are always a one-hit kill scenario. It might make you jump the first time, but it’s easy to dispatch once you know it’s there. The enemy roster diversifies as the game progresses, and the handful of weapons at your disposal all feel good to shoot, but it’s still several hours before combat becomes anything other than basic.
Fortunately, I prefer the puzzling side of Hidden Deep anyway. Cogwheel Software has built a robust core of systems from which to build outward, and I’m keen to solve bigger puzzles with more elaborate machinery while being hunted by weird things, like a cursed episode of Thunderbirds. The current Early Access build has ten levels, amounting to 5-7 hours of playtime, while the roadmap outlines plans for more missions, more weapons, and most importantly, more gadgets. I don’t think you’d regret diving into Hidden Deep right now, but either way, it’s one to watch through the rest of 2022.