We may earn a commission when you buy through links in our articles. Learn more.

Still Wakes the Deep review - low on scares, big on heart

Still Wakes the Deep is OSHA’s worst nightmare tempered by family drama and Scottish humor, though it falls short of its ‘70s horror muses.

Still Wakes the Deep review: a lift surrounding by a spiralling, otherwordly organic growth.

Our Verdict

Still Wakes the Deep dredges up The Chinese Room’s greatest strengths at immersive storytelling, but a low fear factor leaves this oil rig horror in the churning waters of authentic Scottish drama.

Christmas has come early. Christmas 1974, to be precise, and Caz McLeary has just received an ultimatum from his wife. This domestic affair to Still Wakes the Deep is pulled straight from developer The Chinese Room’s narrative playbook, and the studio’s return to horror is as welcome as it is long overdue. Even its landmark releases – Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture – conjure up an unease analogous to a horror or thriller. However, instead of a remote Hebridean island or a quaint Shropshire village, this latest offering transports players to one of the most primordial places on Earth: the middle of the North Sea.

Back to Caz McLeary: an everyman engineer with a solid right hook and temper liable to get him in trouble. Isaac Clarke if he was just a regular fella from Aberdeen, more or less. He’s in a world of trouble that’s about to get worse, but he – and by extension, Still Wakes the Deep – also makes up for the sins of the past. Those who felt held hostage by the movement speed in The Chinese Room’s previous offerings will be relieved to hear that Caz can sprint. It’s a good thing, too, because there’s plenty to flee from aboard the Beira D. This doomed oil rig stands out from the barrage of psychiatric hospitals, elementary schools, and myriad other settings that dominate the horror game genre.

Still Wakes the Deep review: a flooded cabin.

Instead, Still Wakes the Deep reminds me of a slew of classic ‘70s and ‘80s horror films. It hits many of the same notes of capitalist horror as Ridley Scott’s Alien, and it’s no coincidence that my inaugural moments aboard the Beira D oil rig are spent picking around a union rep’s berth. A notice to take industrial action sits on the desk as “IT’S SCOTLAND’S OIL!” blares down from a flyer pinned to the corkboard – a declaration echoed by the crew in the canteen. Offshore drilling company Cadal might not reach the same heights of corporate evil as Alien’s Weyland-Yutani, but it does capture the mundane evil of real-world worker exploitation. Cadal cuts corners, keeps a skeleton crew, and withholds Christmas bonuses to punish strike action. Beira D boss Rennick is slime in a high-vis jacket, and flexes his power over his employees with a raised voice and fist. We even have a secondary antagonist in National Front member Adair – a bald-headed bulldog sporting a white vest and a mockney accent – though he trends more towards class traitor than Machiavellian android.

However, unlike Alien, there is no explosive moment to put the crew on high alert. Instead, the malevolence in Still Wakes the Deep manifests as ribbons of iridescent flesh wending its way through the Beira D. This clash of the organic and the mechanical echoes the gore inherent in industrial accidents. The limbs and faces of hapless crew members caught in its wake are distorted into unnatural sizes and shapes, though the oily chromatic aberration that dances at the corners of Caz’s vision whenever he comes too close is an underwhelming visual side-effect. Thankfully, The Chinese Room makes up for it with a staggering soundscape incorporating whalesong, crashing waves, and a haunting strings-heavy soundtrack.

Still Wakes the Deep review: the monsterous, contorted remains of an oil rig worker.

The malformed bodies of the Beira D crew are quintessential body horror, often assuming an arachnoid silhouette that pays homage to the Norris Spider-Head from John Carpenter’s The Thing. Close encounters with these transformed crewmates are framed as either a linear chase sequence or deadly obstacles to navigate around. I find the former far more effective than the latter, having been spoiled by encounters with more intelligent “stalker” enemies in Alien Isolation and Resident Evil 2 Remake. What’s more, my reflex to shrink back in vents and grates to avoid their reach is also often subdued by their tendrils clipping through the wall.

None of this breaks any new ground, but horror looks different for everyone – and if you’re blessed with thalassophobia like I am, you’re set to have a hell of a time with Still Wakes the Deep. Caz’s descent through the pontoons alone is an utterly terrifying sequence that forces me to swim through extremely tight spaces in pitch-black darkness, with just a twinkle of light at the surface leading me to safety. However, don’t anticipate that you’ll be safe on the upper levels, either. Whether you’re crawling across steel girders or sprinting up a flooding stairwell, The North Sea is an ever-present beast that lurks below, and it never lets you forget it.

Still Wakes the Deep review: a flooded hallway.

Arguably, the real horror is the Beira D itself. Caz must ascend ladders, traverse perilous gaps, spin hatch wheels, and manipulate all manner of switches and buttons. Inevitably, Caz is jostled by some colossal movement, and I have limited time to hold down the left-mouse button before he loses his grip or balance. I quickly discover I can bypass these QTEs entirely by holding down both mouse buttons – but these segments still do their job. Caz’s sudden shout, the screech of industrial metal on metal, and a cursory glance down at a yawning drop or the ocean below all work to capture both the danger and Caz’s own mortality. “Do you know what, I’m a f**king rig expert now,” Caz tells Roy, and I share the sentiment. If not a hair-raising horror, Still Wakes the Deep is certainly an education on the perils of offshore rig operations.

Thankfully, there’s no end to health-and-safety yellow to keep me from walking to my death. As a rule, I don’t dislike yellow paint as much as I dislike heavy-handed signposting in general, but context remains key. Yellow paint is ubiquitous in industrial settings across the globe – OSHA even has a safety code dedicated to the use of it – so if any videogame gets a free pass to use it, there’s no question it’s this one. It also leaves The Chinese Room free to craft a busy environment without having to worry too much about staging objects to subconsciously lead players to wherever they need to go. However, if this reasoning does little to dampen your passionate hatred for yellow paint, you’ll be pleased to know that The Chinese Room has a launch-day patch lined up with a setting to remove it entirely.

Still Wakes the Deep review: the underside of the oil rig with a giant, organic growth wrapped around it.

Still Wakes the Deep is a tight six-hour experience, and this brevity means we don’t get to spend much time with the Beira D crew before the eldritch horror kicks off – and while the fate of each one comes as an emotional blow to our potty-mouthed protagonist, my emotional attachment only extends to a chosen few. That said, Still Wakes the Deep doesn’t outstay its welcome when it so easily could have done. Many of the main objectives amount to navigating from one area of the oil rig to the next, but The Chinese Room deftly avoids the pacing pitfall endemic to this kind of horror game structure. I’m still being pulled from pillar to post, but it’s an intentional choice that emphasizes the claustrophobic confines of the Beira D rather than an artificial attempt to drag the story out for a few more hours.

Caz’s loud protestations at every turn certainly take the sting out of it. “Have you seen it out there?!” he balks when asked to embark on yet another life-threatening excursion. “Oh aye, it’s quite nice in here, you know, maybe we should swap?” This authenticity is also what makes Caz one of the few chatty protagonists I enjoy. Down in the bowels of the pontoons, I stumble upon a crewmate impaled by living flesh, caught in the agonized throes of transformation. “Oh, Christ,” Caz and I say simultaneously, and despite the situation, I am delighted. He is effortlessly funny, casually sarcastic, and above all, emotionally honest.

Still Wakes the Deep review: flashback to Caz and his Suze in their home.

Caz’s family is positioned as Still Wakes the Deep’s emotional core, but it’s his friendship with warm-hearted Roy that steals the show. Caz and Roy, aptly described as “two baws in a bawbag,” are a model of working-class male friendship that videogames often struggle to capture with any real honesty. They jostle and argue, take potshots about football teams, and share a fierce yet unspoken affection for one another. While wife Suze’s presence is restricted to miasmic flashbacks to domestic arguments, Roy is a constant. He’s the reason Caz remains on the Beira D despite several opportunities to escape, as the idea of leaving him behind is unthinkable.

It certainly helps that Still Wakes the Deep has some of the most organic dialogue I’ve ever encountered in a videogame. Take the moment Caz learns that Roy is without his insulin and in danger of a diabetic coma. “Could you not just eat some f**king jam or something?” Caz asks. Roy throws up his hands. “Oh bloody hell, the man’s a medical genius! I’ll get on the blower to Doctor f**king Spock and tell him not to panic, we’ve solved diabetes.” “It’s fucking McCoy, not Spock,” Caz grumbles. “He was the pointy-eared c***t.” This naturalism allows for bright spots of humor in a narrative that is otherwise tragically bleak, and is by far its crowning jewel.

Of course, Still Wakes the Deep’s Scottish authenticity is not solely predicated on the number of times Caz drops the c-bomb. Its script is dripping in Scottish vernacular; slang terms like “bahookie,” “bampot,” and “blootered” all make an appearance, and prolific Glaswegian voice actor Alec Newman leads the charge in a credit list resplendent with native Scots. With Glaswegian director John McCormack at the helm, there’s no question that Still Wakes the Deep is a love letter written by Scottish people, for Scottish people.

Still Wakes the Deep review: Caz flips off Brodie, another oil rig worker, who's in a nearby tower.

To date, The Chinese Room has a track record of creating a premise with a lot of promise that never quite sticks the landing. While I won’t delve into spoiler territory here, it’s fitting that the same project that places the lives of rig workers at its centre is the least pretentious in its execution. It’s easy to extrapolate an allegory or two out of Still Wakes the Deep, but The Chinese Room doesn’t elect to beat me over the head with any grand message. That said, fans of the emotional swings in Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture won’t be disappointed. I anticipate the emotional punch before it comes, but this time around The Chinese Room delivers it with the same grim pragmatism as I expect from any working-class Scot.

Those who dismiss immersive storytelling as superficial “walking simulators” may not find their opinion swayed by Still Wakes the Deep, but I commend The Chinese Room for staying true to the studio’s commitment to this oft-derided corner of the videogame market. It’s not so much a return to form than it is an elevation of the studio’s core formula, but I still find myself wishing for the scare I’ve been waiting for since Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs released over a decade ago. Perhaps next time.