Stirring Abyss, by Sleepy Sentry and Slitherine Ltd., is a turn based tactical RPG with a story mode set in an underwater region, following an attack on a submarine that leaves the crew scattered and stranded. The intent of the game is to find the missing crew members, including the captain who may or may not have something to do with what happened. In addition to the story mode there is an endless mode which allows you to choose between a pair of missions until you fail three of them. The game functionally is similar to the XCOM family of games but adapted to the setting and themes of Stirring Abyss in a functional and effective way.
Stirring Abyss’s central location is a submarine. This serves as a mobile base and place for members of your crew to rest and recover between or during missions, though it is not represented on the game’s map. The submarine starts off damaged and flooded, so early on you are able to use power to clear out water from sections of the submarine, and then use a combination of scrap metal and copper to rebuild them. These sub locations have a mixture of pre-set capabilities and convertible rooms, which can be given a buff of your choice, with costs that vary based on their specific functionality. Some of these, like adding a fourth character to your mission teams, feel essential, while others feel less so.
This submarine screen also gives access to three additional options. The first of these is item crafting. Characters get a variety of abilities based on class and level, and items give them more. These vary a lot; some give an ability with a cooldown, others give one-use abilities and need to be recrafted to be used again, and the rest give passive abilities. All of these items require some combination of resources to build them, and many require you to use the Clues resource to even be able to craft them in the first place. Scrap metal ends up being the biggest bottleneck for crafting these items. Most sub rooms cost a lot of scrap metal, and choosing to use this precious resource to build an one-use or one-character passive item, rather than give a global bonus, is usually a tough sell.
The second is the Enigma Board. This is a (very important) option that is only available after you clear water from the Officer’s Quarters and rebuild it. The Enigma board gives access to what is essentially Stirring Abyss’s tech tree. There are four tiers of enigmas, divided into three categories: Eldritch, Biological, and Mechanical. If you buy an enigma of a given tier, it unlocks the ability to purchase enigmas of the same category of the following tier, though some also have as a prerequisite a specific previous enigma. Most of these bonuses are very good, providing some sort of team bonus that is either widely or specifically useful. Some are a bit less impactful and are probably not worth the investment of your limited Clues on, but it is quite possible that they are more useful for fringe or narrow strategies that I did not stumble upon while playing the game.
The last screen is the mission map. This one lets you choose what mission to do next, either advancing to the next available story mission or using a small amount of energy to search for a side mission. These side missions can be a research grab, a defensive mission, or rescuing another crew member. All are worth doing, and only a limited number of them are available, which only adds to the game’s resource scarcity. You will not be able to build everything or unlock every option, so you will have to make some hard choices. This also adds to the game’s replay value and with a ~15 hour playtime you should be able to explore different paths through the game without too much of a time commitment.
Missions are usually pretty straightforward but also rather tense affairs. You are given the main goal of the mission when you start it, and sometimes this leads to additional steps or even a boss fight. Your entire squad of characters alternates turns with all nearby enemies, with full control over mixing and matching individual characters actions in order to optimize your turn. Characters have two action points and a menu of actions, determined by class and equipment, that can use any number of these action points. Where Stirring Abyss differentiates itself from the XCOM formula is how ap are used for movement. Each action point gives you a range of movement that you are able to use piecemeal. This enables you to inch forward in an attempt to suss out hidden enemies and fall back if necessary, all with a single ap.
Combat is percentage based, with character stats, enemy defense, and cover determining the chance to hit. There are also a variety of potential status effects available but these are usually located on large countdown special abilities, so you frequently will only be able to use them once per battle.
During exploration you have to manage your character’s health, sanity, and air. Air serves as a sort of timer, with each turn causing your oxygen level to tick down. You can manipulate this timer though, as there is usually at least one location in the stage that provides additional oxygen to refill your tanks (shows up on your radar if you get close to one), and there is a craftable one-use item that provides a portable version of that location. HP and sanity are largely only lost because of enemies, though getting too low on oxygen can also damage sanity. Neither HP or sanity recover between missions, though certain submarine upgrades can allow you to recover HP, and another lets you spend medical supplies to restore some of your sanity. Running out of HP results in death, while running out of Sanity causes you to lose access to your character for a turn and lowers maximum sanity. I admit I am not quite sure what happens when Sanity runs out, but I doubt it is pretty.
Characters come in one of three classes: Officers, Crewmen, and Science Officers. Each class dictates access to abilities, both those you start with, and those you can get as you level up, though there is a fair bit of randomness in both what abilities you start with and what abilities you get access to. Whenever you level up you get to pick from one of two abilities, and can improve one of your four ability scores by 2. Each ability score impacts two of your stats, but I found myself focusing on insight and strength, which increased ranged aim and melee damage. This is not to say that there is no place for the other ability scores, but these appeared to be the most attractive given how I was building my party. The other form of build customization is mutation. You are able to find a special resource during missions that you can use on one of your characters enabling you to pick one from a number of mutations, with one reroll allowed. These mutations are purely beneficial, each one providing some sort of special capability or increased stats. These benefits are pretty big, and serve as a real limitation on how many characters are worth developing. Void Marrow is rare, and you can’t make your entire squad into buffed super mutants before the game is over.
Failures and Limitations
Stirring Abyss is hard. Even on the easiest difficulty the game is a bit of a challenge, and the game is tight enough in resources that it is possible to reach an unrecoverable point. Between the steadily escalating challenge and the limited number of total missions and thus resources, decisions matter and it is theoretically possible to lose the game even if your squad isn’t wiped out. This is mitigated somewhat by the game having the ability to load from your most recent save if you have really failed on a stage, and you can roll back further from the main menu.
Part of this difficulty is simply due to your need to incrementally move your squad and keep them together while pushing forward towards your goal. If you don’t know where your enemies are you will find yourself moving an individual member of your squad forward space by space, looking to see if you encounter new enemies. If you take even a single step too far you could potentially trigger an entire pod of enemies and end up in a position where it is suddenly much more difficult to win. This is a valid way to handle it, and over the course of the game I adapted to it, but unfortunately it is equal parts tedious and tense. I could not help but feel relief when I cleared an area and no longer had to spend so much time just slowly walking forward, and while the tension of not knowing what is in the dark was exciting, I am not sure it made up for how tedious the overall structure was.
Whether you succeed or fail in a given mission can sometimes feel a little bit arbitrary. Whether you find oxygen supplies or not can have a big impact on your ability to achieve your goal, and while it is possible to bring your own oxygen supplies these are resource intensive and take up one of a limited number of equipment slots. This can be particularly harsh early on as you are more focused on using resources to build up survival and recovery abilities. Because of this the game encourages save and reloading to either be able to find where the oxygen supplies are on fixed maps, or to luck into their locations on more randomized ones.
The designers made a weird decision to show movement ranges with a white outline where most of the stage’s floors are also light-colored making it pretty difficult to actually make out how far you can move. This is mitigated somewhat by the action point meters clearly showing you when you are going to run out, but it is still frustrating to not be able to use the simple visual indicator that is available. Similarly there is no ability to rotate the camera, which makes it difficult to determine if you are actually moving next to your target or moving into a situation that will trigger an attack of opportunity. This can be frustrating in a game that requires careful movement and planning to avoid too much damage and, potentially, a death spiral.
If you are familiar with the XCOM series of games, particularly XCOM 2, then Stirring Abyss’s structure should be familiar. The sub is basically XCOM 2’s avenger, the combat and exploration system feels very similar to that of XCOM 2, and overall character development choices feel similar. This is all fine. A big part of innovating and iterating in making games is taking the core of another successful game and building on this core to create something new and distinct. Stirring Abyss does this very well. The game is streamlined in areas that are less relevant to a game where you are wrestling with Cthulhuesque horrors in a submarine (rather than engaging in guerilla warfare around the surface of the world), and buffed up in areas where it is more relevant. The sanity and air meters get across both the environment’s hostility and the risks of going insane in the face of cosmic horrors.
The game’s success in providing a distinct feeling game extends to it’s art and writing. The writing is effective at getting across the cosmic horror and hopelessness of the setting. The art is very retro and evocative of the game’s time and place and every single part of the art and graphics fits very well into this. I admit I was somewhat disappointed about how similar the characters look on missions, but considering they are all wearing these bulky environmental suits, looking at the actual characters would not make any sense and would, in fact, be pretty jarring.
The game’s boss fights are very well done. Without spoiling anything, each and every one is a very different sort of challenge. They are almost puzzle-like in the complexity of figuring them out, but I did not feel either of them were pushed too far into the puzzle direction to take away from the tactical decision making involved in them.
While Stirring Abyss has less available classes than a game like XCOM 2, it still provides meaningful decisions in regards to character development and how you want to use them. With the combination of level up perks, mutations, gear, and tech upgrades, it truly felt like there were multiple ways you could potentially build a member of your squad and it felt unlikely any of one of them was truly optimal and thus a no brainer. There is also some variance in how characters are initially configured which also increases differentiation and points towards alternative builds. Stats can vary pretty wildly as can initial character traits (if present), leading you with some tough decisions on how you want to build them. This is good as it provides some level of interplay variability if you are inclined to replays, and it may end up being suboptimal to follow the same path that you did in previous play-throughs.
I particularly want to call out how cool and fun the mutation system is. Each mutation is very interesting, providing some sort of cool ability while also being suitably weird and evocative. My favorites are probably Crusher, which involves the character growing a giant crab arm, causing a big spike in melee damage and replaces one of the character model’s arms with an actual crab claw, and Colony, which infects the character with a colony of small predatory invertebrates, causing damage to adjacent enemies passively and giving him a cooldown-based ability that sends the swarm out to attack an enemy. Most of the others don’t feature a visual effect, but they are all pretty good and provide new dimensions and options for your squad.
Stirring Abyss is a bit short for a turn based tactical rpg. I was able to complete the main story in about 15 hours and that felt right. It matched up well with the individual character’s progressions and the story felt neither too short or too long. This could leave you wanting more but Stirring Abyss gives you the option of participating in Endless mode, which lets you generate a score based on how far you are able to get before failing. You can also replay story mode and explore different strategies and builds. The game doesn’t overstay its welcome and gives you plenty of options to extend your enjoyment if you want to keep playing it.