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  • Writer's pictureAntal Bokor

31 Days of Horror, Day 10: Iron Lung Masters the Unseen with Brilliant Atmosphere

Screenshot: Iron Lung

I’m terrified of the open ocean–as you would probably guess by seeing Subnautica on this 31 Days of Horror series. If Subnautica doesn’t register as your typical horror game, Iron Lung fixes that problem. Sure, it doesn’t have any of the base building or very many bells and whistles. But it distills the parts that were terrifying about Subnautica into a tight little game that is absolutely brimming with atmosphere.

Screenshot: Iron Lung

There’s just something about low fidelity horror games that scare me more often than games using cutting edge graphics. Perhaps the fuzzy, low poly graphics force my brain to fill in the horrifying details—or maybe it’s something about how games with PlayStation One era graphics somehow feel cursed. Iron Lung uses that aesthetic well, resulting in a masterpiece of tension on the part of developer David Szymanski. You might know Szymanski for his work with New Blood Interactive, and games like Dusk that utilize similar, “old school” style graphics. But while Dusk empowers you with speed and an arsenal of weapons, you’re as helpless as can be in Iron Lung.

Iron Lung is a first person, vehicular-based game. In it, you play as a hapless prisoner, forced to explore an alien ocean. While at first it might sound a bit like Subnautica, Iron Lung takes the thalassophobic horror of diving into an alien ocean even further by adding an extreme horror element to it: the entire ocean is made of blood. If that isn’t scary enough, you’re lowered into this bloody ocean in a rusty submarine that feels ready to fall apart at any moment. Your goal is to photograph several points of interest as you navigate the ocean floor—blindly. You don’t have a porthole to see out of, either — instead, you have a map of the ocean floor and its obstructions. You can navigate only by sonar and number coordinates, with the only view of the outside world a slow-to-process camera that you use to take snapshots.

Screenshot: Iron Lung

Essentially, the entire gameplay consists of you piloting a rusty sub that is barely holding together, as you try to navigate blindly with all sorts of unseen creatures lurking around you. The ocean of blood is full of them — and you’re teased with what these creatures may be like when you come across an early photo site, and discover the remains of a large sea creature. If that isn’t bad enough, your submarine begins to fall apart, too. Tense moments are often punctuated by a gas line springing a leak, giving out a terrifying hiss when you least expect it. If you’re not a fan of jump scares, Iron Lung doesn’t rely solely on them for its horror, but it certainly uses them—and effectively, for the most part. Iron Lung is a masterclass in atmosphere and suspense. David Szymanski expertly builds dread by using sound effects, and constant teasing of the unknown. The game’s original soundtrack, also composed by Szymanski, is perfect for its environment, too.

Screenshot: Iron Lung

As much as I absolutely love the atmosphere of Iron Lung, its gameplay was a bit frustrating at times. While I really liked having to blindly navigate the sub—it reminded me of something out of The Hunt for Red October—any mistakes could cost a significant amount of play time. The entire game only takes about an hour to play through, but most of that time is spend navigating from place to place. If you ram into an obstruction, it’s game over, and you have to restart from the previous checkpoint—and sometimes those checkpoints are frustratingly spread apart. The long stretches of blind navigation do a ton to add to the tension, but can feel tedious if you make a mistake and have to replay chunks of the game—even if it is incredibly short.

Screenshot: Iron Lung

Iron Lung is one of the most unique and effective horror games I’ve played in a while. Not only did it succeed in being tense, but it also invoked my sense of discovery. I wanted to know what was in that bloody ocean, despite the hidden horrors. If you have an hour and a few bucks, you should definitely check out Iron Lung.

This review was originally published on 3/14/2022 at this location.



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