Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
Moody first-person entries from indie developers have reinvigorated horror gaming over the last few years. Amnesia, Outlast, and the Slender games combine some survival horror elements with exploration and limited-to-no-combat to achieve supreme tension. It doesn’t hurt that they use the environment, in addition to some pretty epic jump scares, as internal components of the game’s tone. Depths of Fear: Knossos exists somewhere in this gaming spectrum.
It is a mood-driven first-person experience, with one major shift: rather than rely on the standard haunted mansion / asylum aesthetic, it sends players into ancient Greek labyrinths to fight mythical beasts.
You are Theseus, founder of Athens, sent into a labyrinthine sort of underworld to kill eight mythical creatures in order to unlock a sword that will slay the Minotaur. The main world is a hub through which each of the eight lairs can be accessed. There, players will descend three increasingly dark, difficult levels before fighting the final boss in a fiery lava pit. Players collect gold coins to buy weapons and books to purchase temporary powers (e.g. extra speed, healing) on the path to the final boss level, and though combat opportunities are plentiful, it’s probably a good idea to use the sword sparingly.
Tonally, it is fairly similar to the games mentioned above. The levels are unforgiving and tough, filled with traps, hazards, enemies and (oddly) the beasts themselves. Drop into the Satyr’s level, for example, and you will see the Satyr almost immediately. No need to wait until the final level or the boss battle to spy the enemy’s major attacks and tendencies. They stalk the sparsely-decorated halls, preparing to smite intruders, and this is what makes the game so unrelentingly tense. Allow yourself to be seen and both the monster and a pulse-pounding synth beat will follow you until you’ve managed to find a safe hiding spot.
The almost continuous threat of the bosses is what places the game firmly in a horror context. Remember when Nemesis followed you around Raccoon City in Resident Evil 3? Yeah, kind of like that. Hearing the Centaur clop through the darkness or seeing the red eyes of Medusa scanning, Terminator-like, for your presence is an altogether unnerving experience, not because the enemies themselves are frightening – the Hydra, for example, is sort of goofy-looking – but because the sound design is wonderful.
Even though some of the sounds are rudimentary or re-used, they are effective, especially for those of us who play with headphones on. As the boss grows near, the volume increases, and when punctuated with the teeth-clenching sound of the synth, it will send you scurrying.
Also, as mentioned above, the game is brutal. It only takes a few hits or one wrong step to end up dead, and since the game features procedurally-generated levels, you’ll never see the same environment twice. It keeps you constantly grasping for stasis, which fits the philosophical experience of being trapped in a maze. A constantly changing environment prevents you from being able to take ownership of the surrounding world.
Until you purchase one of the heavy weapons – the axe, sword, or trident – you’ll probably spend a lot of time avoiding combat, even with minor foes like zombies. It also provides added risk. Stop long enough to pummel a few unwitting enemies into the ground, and you’ll likely be discovered by the Cerberus (or whoever) and have a real fight on your hands.
Speaking of sound, the soundtrack, too, is really effective. The songs don’t quite match the tone of the game exactly, but their pounding, MIDI-ish aesthetic hearken back to an early time in game development and feels very much like a first-person game from the 90s. The songs make the game feel more like Wolfenstein 3D than Outlast, a quality that I actually really admire about Depths of Fear: Knossos.
The overall design speaks not just to its retro-ish style but also its place among recent horror games. Depths of Fear: Knossos is a fairly small game in scope, simple and focused in a way that big budget, kitchen sink AAA titles are not, and to a large degree that is a relief. Anything that does not deal with the mission at hand – killing nine creatures – is stripped away. It could have added leveling or crafting or HP gains or any number of adornments, but it didn’t.
The biggest problem I have with Depths of Fear: Knossos is that it is repetitive on so many fronts, especially where the boss encounters and level progression were concerned. Even though I had a pretty consistently enjoyable time throughout – except for the lava-filled Manticore levels, grr – I could see how players might find the lack of gameplay variety frustrating or tedious.
The same basic structure follows each and every level, without fail. Avoid the monster. Find a key. Unlock the door. Repeat. Now, this criticism is undermined somewhat by the fact that it is ostensibly a roguelike, so repetition is expected, but the game would definitely benefit from some added gameplay elements. The attempt at jump-based puzzles in the key rooms also strains the controls, because maneuverability is not one of the game’s strengths.
Not only that, but the enemy AI is also fairly static. Each boss is slightly different than the others, but that doesn’t really matter, because the player’s approach won’t really vary. It is a matter of stealth and avoidance, and it matters not which boss is in the labyrinth. You’ll repeat the same process of flitting across dark environments, looking for the illuminated doors that signal level exits. But I guess that’s also just part of the game. Because the purpose is very succinctly defined, it is somewhat cheap to rail against the game’s overall structure.
However, the fact that the game has very narrow aim does not entirely absolve it of what I consider to be the primary criticism. The boss battles, for example, are easily exploited in ways I won’t divulge here, but even without relying on the environment to aid in combat, the battles are too interchangeable.
Boss attacks are disorienting and difficult to recover from, so if you’re like me, mindless club and/or sword swinging was the only way to best each of the main monsters. In a weird way, the final battles remind me of the original Super Mario Bros. in that they feature a big bad on a platform surrounded by lava, needing only a single simple act to be defeated.
I could go through a laundry list of the other minor issues in the game, but none of the minor issues really bothered me or impeded my enjoyment. The team at Dirigo Games consists of a single person, and for what it is, Depths of Fear: Knossos offers plenty for gamers to explore. In fact, for five bucks – it was on sale when I got it – I’m convinced it’s a steal. (For me, the game’s soundtrack alone is worth five dollars.) It is a weird, singular (perhaps unintentional) throwback to first-person games of a different era, at least visually. Also, the developer keeps a healthy dialogue with players on the Steam page, so reporting ideas or bugs usually results in a fairly quick turnaround on fixing them.
The Final Word: Knossos is less of a story than a premise, and for me it’s all this game needs. So, if the idea of trudging through procedurally-generated levels for the sake of finding a Macguffin in order to go to other levels that require the same Macguffin appeals to you, then this game is well worth the $5.99 price tag.