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Something is Stirring, down in the Abyss. A submarine, the USS Salem, has a mysterious incident which leaves the crew scattered across the s...

Stirring Abyss Stirring Abyss

Stirring Abyss

Stirring Abyss

Something is Stirring, down in the Abyss. A submarine, the USS Salem, has a mysterious incident which leaves the crew scattered across the sea floor in diving suits. You awaken as one of the officers, and set to work finding other survivors from the crew and figuring out what happened. As you explore, it becomes apparent that this was no simple naval incident. Aggressive, monstrous creatures stand in your way, and nature seems to be corrupting in disturbing ways all around you. going on.

Just in time for Halloween comes a spooky strategy adventure from Sleepy Sentry and Slitherine Games. Stirring Abyss combines elements of XCOM and the Lovecraft mythos to create something quite different than anything I've seen before. As the leader of the surviving crew from the USS Salem, you'll go on a series of missions, defeating monsters and gathering resources as you unravel the plot. While you might glance at the screenshots and think that this game seems simple enough, there is actually quite a lot going on...beneath the surface. 

After coming to his senses on the sea floor, your starting character makes his way back to the USS Salem, which has suffered heavy damage. Fans of XCOM will immediately see the influence of the base building in that series reimagined here. Instead of building a base, you'll instead be pumping water out of the various compartments in the sub, and then spending resources to get things operational again. Some rooms have a pre-determined use, while quite a few can provide a benefit of your choosing. Stirring Abyss is very stingy with resources, forcing you to make hard choices about what rooms to bring online first. 

Stirring Abyss is actually stingy in a lot of good ways, constantly putting your team under a ton of...pressure. Crew members don't automatically heal between missions. Resources that you need for repairing the sub are also needed for crafting items and equipment. Power generated by the sub can be used for special abilities during the tactical phase, but needs to be conserved if you're going to keep pumping water out of the sub. During the tactical phase your team is closer to running out of air with each turn that passes. On top of all of that, the tactical combat itself is unforgiving, often pitting your team against overwhelming odds and demanding that you use all of their special abilities to good effect, or else. 

The tactical combat is relatively simple in terms of mechanics, but still very satisfying. There are three classes of characters: officers, scientists, and crewmen, each with a different set of options for unlocking new abilities as they level up. Additionally, each character you bring on board is unique, with a few custom traits of their own. Most combat early on consists of stabbing enemies with your handy diving knives, but eventually each character will have a variety of options for dishing out extra damage, hitting enemies with status effects, and supporting each other. Making this far juicier is that this is a game set in a Lovecraftian world, drawing much of its inspiration from The Temple, a short story about a German sub in WWI that meets a troubled end. After just a couple of missions you gain party wide supernatural abilities that you can fire off several times per mission. These include things like teleporting short distances and massively boosting your accuracy. A little further into the campaign you'll unlock a room in the sub where you can mutate your crew members and give them straight up crazy new "perks" like tentacle arms and giant claws. 

You'll need every advantage you can get, as Stirring Abyss pulls no punches with difficulty. Besides dealing with scant resources, you'll also need to keep a close eye on the hit points of your crew members. While there are a lot of ways to restore hit points (abilities, items, submarine features, and occasionally by killing enemies) almost none of them are free, and absolutely none of them will fill that health meter up in one go. This strategic concern translates to careful maneuvering during the tactical phase. Recklessly wading into a fight can put you at a disadvantage later on. Instead, you'll want to make full use of the options you have. You'll also need to learn how each of the many different enemy types operates. Most have at least a couple of special abilities that you'll need to work around. Besides health points, your crewmen also have a sanity meter which can be depleted by various events, like say, seeing a teammate get ripped apart by a giant shark-man monster. Suffering too much sanity damage can eventually render someone completely insane, which could cost you a veteran of many battles.  As units level up they can choose from new perks and abilities, depending on their class, as well as stat bonuses that increase things like damage resistance and critical hit chances. These upgrades are pretty straight forward, but to add some complexity there are also a large selection of party-wide bonuses to be unlocked over time. 

While the combat and XCOM elements are quite good, if relatively simple, what really makes this game sing is how it dives into its theme. The impressive music tracks are dark and foreboding, playing up the dread of a deep sea mystery and something unimaginable lurking in the darkness. The graphics, which still screenshots don't fully convey, charmingly draw from the well of 1950's era sci-fi and adventure art. Each mission carries the narrative forward, with lengthy discussions among the crew, detailed descriptions of the various horrors you come across, and the occasional choose-your-own-adventure style minigame. I don't want to spoil too much here, as the mystery of just what is happening is a big part of the draw to go from one mission to the next. 

As a fan of Lovecraft stories and someone who can't get enough XCOM style strategy games, this one was a very pleasant surprise when it popped onto my radar and eventually ended up in my hands. I haven't gotten too far into the campaign yet, as there was a bug (since ironed out in the release version) which tripped me up several times. Even so, there's no doubt in my mind that this game will hold your interest if you give it a shot. The story is fun right out of the gate, and the tactical combat is comfortable but challenging. I look forward to pursuing the mystery further and seeing just what sort of eldritch horrors are causing so much chaos in the briny deep.

Stirring Abyss is available on GoG, Steam and directly from Slitherine.

- Joe Beard

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