Iron Lung Review: "A Masterclass On How To Build Tension"
Short horror has the benefit of rarely overstaying its welcome. We've all been sucked in by a horror game, only for it to wear thin after being hit with the same stimulus over and over. It's the potential downside of a genre that seeks to pull out the most extreme emotional reactions from people, and turning numb to that can kill the experience. Iron Lung's length - running just over one hour - allows it to steer clear of these trappings, but how immediately effective is the horror?
The Killing Moon
Iron Lung is set in a universe where every habitable planet has suddenly vanished, leaving only the survivors who were on starships and space stations alive. This galaxy-spanning apocalyptic event has left precious few resources for humans to use, but the discovery of a blood ocean on a moon, and the anomalous readings coming from its depths, provide hope for those who are left.
You're a convict tasked with exploring the blood ocean in a rusty, scrap submarine known as the Iron Lung. The game begins as you slowly descend into the ocean, watching the depth metre slowly tick lower, while the porthole is forced to close due to the pressures. Once you hit the bottom, the voice breaks up, and you're all alone - left with minimal oxygen, and the most rudimentary of navigation equipment.
The Pressure Is On
The game focuses on very minimalist gameplay, with everything taking place inside the Iron Lung itself. Those with claustrophobia or thalassophobia should immediately feel the pressure build, and a note found on the floor illuminates the fact that you may not be expected to return.
The only tools at the players disposal are an incomplete map with some coordinates of anomalous locations, proximity sensors, and a grainy external camera used to photograph key locations. It's a simple but effective gameplay loop, and you'll slowly move to each area by managing the X and Y axis of the submarine, while finding the right angle to capture your surroundings.
The photographing aspect is a huge part of the experience beyond just capturing the set points marked on the map too. You can use it freely, and it plays into the horror immensely. A stand-out moment came when I was in an open area of the ocean, and the proximity sensor began to beep. I ran to the camera immediately, and as the grainy image hit the screen, there was a huge eye staring back that shocked me out of my chair. It was an organic moment that really highlighted how trapped I was.
An Ugly Place
Iron Lung piles on the feeling of dread and paranoia, building a constant tension that explodes during its final moments. The sound design and soundtrack work in tandem to really hammer these feelings home, and are some of the most effective tools for constructing the gripping atmosphere. The groans of creatures, the bending of metal under the immense pressures, and the beep of your falling oxygen metre ring out periodically, while the industrial drone of the score punctuates the most tense moments. The balance is perfect, and the game also knows when to reign the noise back to near silence.
Visually, the low-fidelity, chunky pixel look means the environment is quite repulsive. Everything is grimy and disgusting, with rust coating the guts of the Iron Lung, and your few glimpses of the outside paint a picture of a desolate place... and it's fantastic. The visual style compliments the experience well, crafting a horrific look for a horrific journey.
Mystery For One
Iron Lung is a masterclass of how to effectively build tension and dread. It runs at just the right length to explore its minimal gameplay ideas, while remaining mysterious and opaque enough to feel larger than the immediate experience. It's well worth the time for those who enjoy experimental game concepts or suffocating atmospheres, and what lurks in the blood ocean may stick with you well past your playtime.
Reviewed on PC. Code provided by publisher.