Review: Iron Lung

Store page / View this review on Steam

You really never know what you’re getting with short horror games. It could be a strong, slow burn, it could be ramping insanity, it could be understated atmosphere, or it could be something utterly incomprehensible. It’s the truly untamed lands of the horror genre, where anything can carry a game concept. Iron Lung is a definite stand-out in this space, a game that will take you less than an hour to work through, but will linger with you for quite some time. It’s also a testament to how much you can accomplish through sound design and expectation, because when you realize what the gameplay consists of, you’ll be shocked to hear that it’s still a terrifying adventure.

The premise of Iron Lung is seriously one of the best ever, and I’m not spoiling anything because it’s on the store page and in the opening splash when you start a new game. Decades ago, every star and habitable planet in the universe simply vanished, leaving behind only starships, space stations, and barren moons. The survivors have persisted off of stockpiled resources and the remaining light from now-dead stars, but the situation is entirely hopeless. However, they’ve recently discovered an ocean of blood on a remote moon. It’s not the first they’ve found, but there’s something mysterious lurking beneath the crimson surface that needs to be explored. That job falls to you, welded into a ramshackle submarine with no portholes and no hope of escape unless you complete your mission.

If that description didn’t set your imagination spinning and also make you a little bit sweaty, I don’t want to be your friend anymore. It’s a brilliant bit of world-building that also puts you into one of the worst situations imaginable, trapped at the bottom of a blood ocean and forced to plumb its secrets. The game itself takes place in your tiny shoebox of a submarine, with no windows or doors or hope. You have a map of the trench network you’re submerged in, with coordinates marked to investigate. At one end of your sub, you have controls that let you move forward, backwards, or turn, and a coordinate readout letting you know where you are. You’re basically navigating by math, picking out waypoints on your map that won’t run you into the trench walls, and watching the X and Y coordinates tick up and down as you sail the bloody seas.

The only other thing you have is a button at the back of your sub that lets you take a picture of what’s outside. You can use it at any time to get an idea of where you are, but the mission is to photograph all of the points of interest on your map. That’s the only interaction you get with your surroundings, and as you might imagine, it is used to excellent effect. Iron Lung is a very understated horror experience, letting the pacing and atmosphere do all the work of getting your imagination twisted into knots. There are some tense moments maneuvering your sub through tight corridors and listening to the proximity alerts ping, but the majority of the thrills come from what the game sets you up to expect, and then what happens. It’s a master class in horror design, and I won’t spoil any of it for you, because I heartily encourage anyone captivated by the premise to give Iron Lung a try and be terrified by the secrets of the blood ocean.

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