Developer: Moonray Studios
Publisher: Moonray Studios
Played on: PC
Release Date: October 23, 2017
Played with: Mouse & Keyboard
Paid: $0 (Key provided for review)
“Walking simulators” have become a notoriously divisive genre over the years, garnering both love for their way of telling an interactive story, and criticism for the general lack of purpose said interaction tends to involve. Branching off this, I like to consider Debris a “swimming simulator”; sure, you have the added ability to move vertically, but the gameplay still very much consists of, “Keep moving forward while being fed assorted storytelling bits”. This is by no means a bad thing, as ABZÛ – one of my favourite games in recent memory – arguably also falls into this category. Unfortunately, whereas ABZÛ was a consistently wondrous experience that left me practically begging for more, Debris is…well, we’ll get into that.
Debris’ plot follows a diver named Ryan, who gets separated from his co-workers – Chris and Sonya – while filming an underwater promotional video for a new energy source known only as “debris”; you know, because “unobtanium” has already been done. While the accident that placed each team member in peril at first seems to be just that, Ryan begins to develop suspicions to the contrary. Shortly after reuniting with Sonya (in the form of a squid-like drone she can somehow connect to), Ryan starts experiencing visions and glitches with his diving suit. Equipment begins malfunctioning, voices cut in and out of his intercom, and the safety of Chris is quickly thrown into question. Thus, it’s up to Ryan to seek out his friends, get to the surface to find help, and above all, get to the bottom of the mystery.
I would have loved to join Ryan in piecing together this thought-provoking puzzle, but I was trying to solve a case of my own: The Mystery of the Disappearing Framerate. Not only did diving deeper into the foreboding Arctic caverns yield all manner of dangerous, luminous beings, it brought with it the greatest horror of all: a drop from 80 to 30 FPS (and below). What was going on with this, I’m not totally sure, since Debris isn’t much of a looker to begin with. Most textures are fairly simplistic, and most of the time, you’re swimming through tightly enclosed ice tunnels. The lighting effects are alright, but the inky darkness of the deep is so impenetrable (even with flares) that half the time you’ll be staring at what amounts to a black screen while your framerate tanks.
What really made me call Debris’ optimization into question was the frequent loading screens. The game is divided up into chapters, but completing each one throws you to a black screen to wait 30 seconds or so for the next area to load. That would be fine on its own, but to then be met with such mediocre performance on a computer far exceeding the system requirements? I was certainly raising an eyebrow. Plus, changing the video options had almost no effect; running the game on the lowest settings in a 1024×768 resolution gained me about 7 FPS compared to maxing it out at 4K. Thankfully, with Debris’ slower pace, this didn’t have much of a direct impact on the gameplay experience, save for some frustrating stuttering while trying to quickly turn around and shoot at enemies.
That’s right, Debris’ other big twist to the classic walking simulator formula is that you’ve got a gun! You’re able to switch between two modes: a flare gun, and a laser rifle; the former lights your way and scares off certain enemies, while the latter scares off enemies in a more…permanent way. The key difference is that each feeds off the overall power left in your suit, which is shown by a timer on your HUD. Firing a flare eats up a minute of life, while a laser blast takes three. Getting hit by enemies will also significantly decrease the timer, and the only way to restore it is to wait for Sonya to collect debris at specific points in the game, then equalize your energy with her, leaving the two of you with the same amount of time each.
While this time mechanic is a clever way to add a sense of pressure and urgency, it never moved beyond being a simple formality. The only times that I dipped below the 20-minute mark were when I kept missing potshots at the game’s surprisingly evasive fish, and even then, I died but once.
An excess of time is perhaps the most consistent problem in Debris. Not only does the overwhelmingly generous distribution of debris mean that you rarely feel any sense of tension from your dwindling health bar, but the game also runs for far too long. Clocking in at around three to four hours, Debris is a brief enough experience, but that’s three to four hours of floating through bland, samey environments. Get used to the bluish tint of ice underwater and the orange glow of your flares; those are basically the only colours you’ll be seeing the whole time.
At least the music is pretty good, with lots of oppressively pounding orchestral tracks that do a valiant job of building some level of paranoia. The same can’t be said for the voice work; despite some competent voice acting, the voices of the characters frequently overlap in ways that make it near impossible to figure out what anyone is saying. Not only that, but certain voices were so quiet in comparison to the other sounds that I simply gave up paying attention in most situations. Even if this was all intentional, I ended up feeling far more encouraged to just tune everything out, rather than risking disappointment over the game’s deliberately obfuscated proceedings.
All this culminates in an end-game twist that feels far more cheap and manipulative than it no doubt wants to be. It ends up coming across more as a vain attempt to justify some of the earlier frustrations I mentioned, while also trying to encourage players to seek out more of the game’s several endings; no thanks. To its credit, the twist did get me thinking about some aspects of the game’s story in a new light, but my overwhelming sentiment is still that it’s executed clunkily and – ultimately – is too little, too late.
Debris is a competent enough experience, but that’s really all I can say about it. When it comes to visuals, gameplay, optimization, and storytelling, it feels like it does little more than the bare minimum required to be considered a halfway-decent game. There’s nothing in here that’s overtly bad, but there’s also nothing that feels earned. So many games of Debris’ ilk feel like far more than the sum of their parts, so why bother wasting your time on one that’s a mere smattering of ideas, scattered across the ocean floor?