Deep Fear was geared to be played by American audiences: the acting is all in English, one character obsesses about baseball, and your superior officer is named Clancy, a seeming homage to Tom Clancy, an American writer who often wrote about military submarines. So why wasn't it ported to the American version of the Saturn? Who knows, but we missed out on a great survival horror adventure.
You control John Mayor, a sturdy blonde-haired specimen of a man who is suffering from the common cold. As a member of ERS (Emergency Rescue Services), he must investigate strange happenings in various underwater stations and vehicles. His first assignment is to explore a lopsided submarine lying on the ocean floor. An African-American sidekick named "Mookie" wears a ball cap and likens everything to baseball (he even gives a shout-out to "the Yankees of 96" making him this reviewer's favorite character). When John and Mookie arrive at the sub, they discover a naval officer trying to euthanize himself because his body is being taken over by a quickly spreading parasite. Unfortunately, most of the other denizens of the deep have befallen the same fate, and John is forced to kill them, even if he recognizes the malformed humans as former friends. To confound his problems, oxygen is sometimes scarce, so he may have to fumble with a respirator in the midst of combat.
As strange as this may sound, the game thrives on its limitations. Modern gamers may be frustrated by the inability to toggle camera angles, but the fixed point-of-view really helps make this horror more horrifying. Sometime John will face something fierce, but we cannot see what monstrosity awaits him. You can then opt to have the young hero run into danger just to get a more revealing view or you can have him take his gun and fire into unknown. If you choose the latter, you will need to listen for the sounds of bullets hitting something organic, waiting for sputtering sounds as various humours pour from the monster's body.
Another seeming shortcoming is the lack of space and maneuverability in battles, but this snugness fits the submarine setting perfectly. The crew's living quarters appropriately resemble college dorm rooms, minimally decorated with the basic necessities of life, and in some of these John will face some of his largest adversaries. While most adventures reserve larger playing fields for major boss battles, the ones in Deep Fear feel comparatively like sardine tins. Since there's no room to run, you will need to confront your claustrophobia in addition to facing gargantuan mutants.
The sounds in this game are excellent. Water drips, air locks creak, and a monkey screams from a far off room - all offsetting the fact that most of this game is silent - a silence that emulates the feeling of being submerged and insulated from the world. It is particularly strange that most of the gameplay has no soundtrack since Sega conscripted one of Japan's most celebrated composers, Kenji Kawai, to orchestrate its sounds. Kawai is not a Foley artist, but a musician known for his exemplary work with films like Ghost in a Shell, Avalon, and Ringu. Instead of a continuous soundtrack, Kawai punctuates the actions with light touches of environmental sounds, and shows a restraint that works very well.
Many players have panned the game's story, but their criticism mostly stems from its stiff acting and the absurdity of some character's voices. Dubois Amalric, the architect of the station, for example, speaks in a high effeminate falsetto at a volume almost as loud as his purple turtleneck sweater. Strangely enough, he shows more emotion than most other characters.
The script does suffer from a misunderstanding of basic human behavior. John Mayor seems too levelheaded and unfazed by the strange events that befall him despite seeing friends and colleagues die. He only breaks his stoicism when he talks about his deceased girlfriend who died in a boating accident years prior to the game's action. This guy clearly has his priorities all wrong. Other characters seem more concerned about the welfare of their pets than their own safety. One girl wants to free her dolphins before running out of oxygen; a scientist cannot part without her lab monkey; another woman clears the halls with a shotgun in search of her bulldog. (I searched the manual just to see if the ASPCA sponsored the game in some sort of "Captain Planet lets teach the children" sort of way. No dice.)
Despite questionable characterization, the story's premise is wonderfully scripted and the writers should be commended for integrating real-world events and technology so seamlessly into their fiction. For example, the story cites "Project Daedalus" - a proposal made by British scientists in 1973 to send an unmanned probe to a neighboring solar system to determine the feasibility of long space flights. While the actual project was abandoned in 1978, the writers of Deep Fear use this bit of history as the impetus for scientists to conduct "cold sleep" experiments in space. After a space capsule conducting one such experiment lands in the ocean, we discover the strange side effect of these tests ... mutation.
Deep Fear is often likened to the first Resident Evil, but the Sega title is much easier. In Resident Evil you must carefully ration your supplies, but in Deep Fear you can help yourself to bottomless refills of first aid sprays and ammo (and oxygen). The writers must have been conscious of the similarities between the two games; there even seems to be a subtle nod to the Capcom game in one room where a potted plant sits among various first aid supplies. Resident Evil fans may find themselves trying futilely to pick it up to restore their health.
If you are sentimental about old horror adventures with limited capabilities, then Deep Fear is for you. There are still many Japanese copies available for sale at inexpensive prices, and while most of the text is in Japanese, it is largely unneeded to solve puzzles (keypads mostly) or to understand the story. In the worst-case scenario, you can consult a walkthrough.
While we have movies like the Abyss, Leviathan, and Deep Star Six, the underwater-sci-fi-horror genre is largely untapped in gaming. If a game like Deep Fear had been released on a more popular system, perhaps that would be different.