Sometimes, a game being “right up your alley” is actually a detriment to evaluating it fairly. Why? Because that kind of perception creates high expectations. And if a game can’t match those expectations, regardless of its overall quality, it can feel worse than a game with almost no merits to its name.

This is the case with Barotrauma, a game about sci-fi submarines plumbing the abyssal depths of Europa, a moon of Jupiter. It’s similar to FTL: Faster than Light in terms of managing a crew (and putting out a hundred different fires — sometimes literally) in an enclosed setting adrift in a hostile environment. Unlike FTL, however, your crew in Barotrauma isn’t the last hope of a flagging cause. Instead, you’re just a bunch of working folks trying to make a living in a claustrophobic, often horrific depiction of space colonization. That is, in so many words, my jam. 

However, the fantastic premise and current state of the game creates an odd dynamic. As it stands, Barotrauma has a mechanical framework that shows a tremendous deal of promise. But its emphasis on multiplayer leaves the single-player campaign in a strange state of undress. Communication between humans and the division of labor, both pivotal aspects of the multiplayer, are compromised in single-player, largely without a suitable replacement to fill the knowledge and skill gap.

Still, this is a workable problem, and it’s undeniable that Barotrauma can soar to incredible heights (ironically), given the proper care. 

Zoom In

  • What is Barotrauma? It’s a 2D co-op submarine simulator set in a nightmarish vision of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Steer the sub, man the guns, and enact all sorts of repairs in a pressurized sci-fi death tube. Oh, and try not to get eaten by monsters or crushed instantly under the overwhelming weight of the abyss. 
  • Developer: FakeFish, Undertow Games
  • Publisher: Daedalic Entertainment
  • Release Date: June 5, 2019
  • Price: $29.99
  • Reviewed On: PC
  • Website: www.barotraumagame.com

Under Pressure

Barotrauma’s number one barrier to enjoyment is its lack of accessibility. To be fair, it’s emphasized on the Steam store page that the game is best played with multiple people, with communication being a huge factor. This is certainly the setting in which the game’s mechanics will shine most, and for those who can wrangle a group to play that way, it’s a worthwhile experience. 

Barotrauma 3
Brandon Curran / High Ground Gaming

However, it’s sad to see that the Campaign mode, presented as a major feature, manages to squander a lot of that promise in the current build. Things start well enough: after a seemingly robust set of tutorials, you’re given command of a sub and turned loose to explore, battle, and die horribly. Some nuances lost in the tutorials take some getting used to. Still, you can get into a groove where your crew is a well-oiled machine, deftly maneuvering their sub through the deeps and fending off minor threats with impunity. I say “minor threats” because the major ones, if they hit you hard enough, can start a death spiral that’s nigh impossible to come back from, especially if you’re new to the game. Then, if you get stuck in a rut, frustration becomes the predominant mood of the experience. 

Barotrauma 1
Brandon Curran / High Ground Gaming

As it so happens, the tutorial doesn’t manage to cover how exactly to respond to many prominent crises, like the reactor hitting a critically low temperature. The result is that you’ll often be scrambling to figure out precisely what to do about a fatal problem. All the while, more problems are piling up and making it impossible to react effectively to the situation. In something like FTL, the quickly-mounting dangers are offset by straightforward, well-explained mechanics and the ability to pause the game and issue orders to your crew at any given time. Here, many mechanics are devilishly complex, given only a cursory explanation, and thrown at the player without mercy. While it certainly adds to the oppressive atmosphere, one can’t help but feel that little tension would be sacrificed to facilitate clarity and a greater degree of control. 

Light from the Surface

Barotrauma 2
Brandon Curran / High Ground Gaming

Of course, it’s not fair to harp on the game mercilessly for this shortcoming. After all, it’s still in Early Access and has time to address these issues, making the single-player as worthwhile and fun as the multiplayer. And the potential is certainly there. When dealing with situations I could grasp, Barotrauma’s atmosphere was a methodical, moody, slow-burn tension. It’s deeply satisfying to come under attack by some eldritch monster of the deep, only to keep your head and order your crew effectively, slaying the beast with a salvo from the coilguns, swiftly patching up leaks in the hull and proceeding apace. 

If the developers can tweak the single-player until it’s as effective as the multiplayer, Barotrauma will widen its appeal and realize a lot of its untapped potential. As it stands, the campaign is like an uncut gem: undoubtedly valuable in its own right, but still in a raw, underdeveloped state that could be transformed to brilliant effect. 

Related Reading

Zoom Out: Verdict
Overall
7/10
7/10
  • Multiplayer - 8/10
    8/10
  • Audiovisuals and Atmosphere - 8/10
    8/10
  • Campaign - 6/10
    6/10
  • Structure and Controls - 6/10
    6/10

Summary

Barotrauma is currently a good multiplayer experience with a strong sense of tension and foreboding. Mechanically robust and punishingly hard, it will require some more refinement before it lands with the intended impact, but this is by no means an unattainable goal. 

Pros

  • Solid multiplayer
  • Tone and aesthetics
  • Worldbuilding and mechanics

Cons

  • Frustratingly punishing
  • Clunky controls, structural issues
  • Mechanical nuances poorly conveyed

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