Grogheads Reviews: Stirring Abyss!

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Stirring Abyss is a squad level, turn based, survival-horror-exploration game developed by Sleeping Sentry and distributed by Slitherine/Matrix.  This review is based on more than 21 hours of play.  I was given a review copy, but then purchased my own copy so I could continue playing my game without restarting from the beta version.  Yes, the game was so good that I shelled out retail price so my save game would not be lost.

By: Avery Abernethy

1 Stirring Abyss

In November, 1958 the USS Salem is traveling through the North Atlantic Ridge when disaster strikes.  The sub is heavily damaged and sinks to the bottom.  Your initial character mysteriously awakens in a diving suit on the Ocean floor.  After fending off attacks from mutated, electroshock jellyfish and poison dart shooting deep ones; your officer revives a crew member and they reach the USS Salem.  There is barely enough power to start emergency repairs.

2 Unknown Things in the Deeps

Unknown Things in the Deeps

3 USS Salem

USS Salem

“In deep waters, the smallest ripple can change everything.”

Stirring Abyss combines several genres of computer gaming to come up with something unseen by me since the first X-COM game.  This is a good, small squad, turn based combat, survival horror game.  You have one base, the USS Salem.  You start the game with little information.  There is no manual, the back story is provided in the initial cut scenes.  Even the level up chart is a mystery.

The USS Salem is crippled.  Unless you can repair her, the entire crew dies.  There are horrible, undersea antagonists with melee, ranged attacks and evil magic.  Your crew starts out very weak with no clear path towards survival.  After restarting four times, my crew has been strong enough to repair most of the Salem.  Perhaps I’ll survive to return to the USA – on the easiest setting.

4 Away Mission

Away Mission

5 Under Attack

Under Attack

I don’t want to give away the story for those interested in playing, making this a brief review.  The game contains a lot of paths forward and your enjoyment will be heightened if you experience it yourself.

You start by deciding on the difficulty level and if you want a story based game, or an endless Rogue-type game where your crew eventually dies.  I chose the story based game – and the back story is strong without endless reading or cut scenes.

6 Game Choices

Game Choices

If you survive long enough, you discover an alien menace in the deeps.  You find clues about the disappearance of the Captain and most of the crew.  You discover mysterious communications left by an earlier Russian Submarine.

7 Soviet Record Found on the Bottom

Soviet Record Found on the Bottom

Characters gain experience from successful missions.  This experience can be converted into a limited number of level-ups with a choice between two skill options for every level gained.  There are four core character attributes and when leveling up one attribute can be improved by two points.  Characters are limited to leveling up six times.

8 Character Sheet

Character Sheet

Your team gains clues from killing monsters and making discoveries during explorations.  These clues can be converted on the “enigma board” to factors improving the entire crew.  Or clues can be spent to research items which improve your away teams.

9 Enigma Board with Unknown Results

Enigma Board with Unknown Results

While on missions and occasionally from pumping out compartments in the USS Salem, your team can recover salvage.  This salvage is critical to repairing and upgrading the Salem and building combat equipment.

My game play has been on the easiest setting.  I’m been challenged and enraptured.  Based on discussion board comments, game difficulty ramps up considerably on harder levels.  I’m guessing that everyone can find a challenge.

The game was stable.  The controls were intuitive (essential when there is no manual).  The sound effects and music fit the game so well that I’ve not turned them off yet – almost a first for me.

There is a whole separate layer to the game where you use discovered elements to mutate your crew members giving them additional skills.  But – mutating your crew can cause insanity.  My play has focused on increasing my crew’s “normal talents” and avoiding the dark side.  My future plans include attempting a wholesale embrace of the dark side to see where that path takes me.

10 Choosing A Mutation

Choosing A Mutation

The closest game I can compare this to is X-COM: Terror of the Deep – but Stirring Abyss has far more mystery plus the ability to embrace darkness.  I seldom play a game where I can use the terms “quite different” and “really good” to describe the same game.  Stirring Abyss is one of the few games meriting such praise that I’ve played in the last decade.

11 Mission Report

Mission Report

There are negatives.  Inexplicably, you cannot rename characters.  There is no manual.  That was a design decision to retain mystery but it may annoy some players.  Horrible things are pictured.  Players can choose to embrace the dark side (or not), but everyone encounters Lovecraftian-type evil.  Think carefully before allowing children to play.  If you don’t let your kids watch horror movies, Stirring Abyss might be age inappropriate.  I thought the horror and omission of a manual were good design decisions, but others may disagree.

Like the X-COM games, tactical combat can become repetitive with relatively few types of combatants.  The AI’s tactical combat routine is simple, but effective.  Still, if you eventually grew tired of X-COM battles this may not be the game for you.

I’ll leave with a small number of game tips to avoid too many initial restarts without giving away anything important.  Survival depends in part on gathering as much salvage and as many clues as possible during every mission to the ocean floor.  Strongly consider focusing your efforts on picking up everything useful on your away missions while generating as many clues as possible.

In conclusion, this is one of the best horror/tactical combat/base building games that I’ve played in decades.  Stirring Abyss provides an excellent and novel game experience.

Stay Sane and Safe Voyage Home!  It could happen!

About the author: Avery Abernethy found at an early age that he could not float and sank like a cinderblock in water.  Undersea adventure is the last thing he would attempt in real life.  Avery retired early and is enjoying shooting both real firearms and game weapons.


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