I dig horror games, but I dig them more when you can play with friends. Playing by yourself can be scarier, which is fun. But when you are being frightened together, it can still be totally scary, while also being funny. You get both feelings at once, which is the best. Barotrauma is a 2D co-op submarine game, where you are trying to keep your crew safe from the alien horrors of the deep. The game captures dread and fellowship. Isn’t that what you want from your 2D submarine games?
If You Are Not a Moon Dork
The setup to Barotrauma is a little more complicated than first appears. It’s the (“not too distant”) future and Earth is covered in toxic fire. I assume. The environment collapsed, so humans skedaddled to the body in our solar system that has the best chance at supporting life- Europa. We of course, found more than we were looking for.
If you are not a moon dork, Europa is the smallest of Jupiter’s main four moons (out of 92 total!). It’s a shade smaller than Earth’s moon, and a substantiated hypothesis posits that’s because what we are seeing is the radioactive icy surface of a moon-covering sea. That’s why everyone in Barotrauma lives basically full-time in submarines. That’s also maybe why they didn’t know about the horrifyingly nasty gigantic mollusks that lurk in the depths. And this is a video game so, dive deeper, you can definitely find worse.
Fear With Friends
The gimmick that sets Barotrauma apart is its co-op gameplay. Your submarine can get pretty big, and you can crew it with up to 16 other players (or bots if you have no friends) (or bots if you play the game in pre-release and the servers are a little bare). Different rooms in your craft are used for different necessities, and players can develop their characters across six specialized classes. The classes, whether you’re the Captain, Engineer, Mechanic, security officer and whatnot.
Driving the thing feels gritty and granular. I’ve been on a submarine once; I never touched a button. I’m sure that submarine operation is akin to rocket science. And I could wrap my head around the various tasks in Barotrauma. But damn, even the most basic stuff takes a lot of effort. Which is good!
Any Color of Submarine
Where the complexity starts to make me sweat is in the building mechanics. Which is a bummer, because the building mechanics are the biggest selling point of the game. You have a robust sense of options, and I can see how creative you can get with your setup. Where’s the ideal place to put a medbay? Should weapon controls be near where you steer? The game’s marketing invokes FTL: Faster Than Light, Rimworld, aand Dwarf Fortress. But I found this part closer to another game where I am constantly losing everyone to a calamitous cascade of oxygen deprivation and pee: Oxygen Not Included.
I can also see where the co-op could be not just good, but great. I don’t think I have 16 friends who game (certainly not all in the same time zone), but I can see a sub being manageable with maybe 6 players, with the rest of the crew filled in by bots. The bots ain’t that smart though, so managing them is gonna be a full job. But where the day-to-day can be exciting, Barotrauma comes to life when you are imminently about to die.
When a beast boards your ship, it’s terrifying. The beasts are somehow made more scary by the chunky, retro graphics. Those things appear so suddenly they must be crawling in through an exhaust port of something. And when a huge crab claw pierces your hull, it’s literally all hands on deck as you try to bail the water and plug the hole. The moments right before the cascade are dreadful, but your final moments alive will be some of the most thrilling game you play in 2023.
Captain on the Bridge
I think the ideal game is mostly pretty calming, with moments of sheer terror. I, like a lot of you, enjoy playing the occasional Minecraft. You set your own goals, and achieve them in your own time. But When you can laying the foundation for your latest pixel palace, you hear the hiss of a creeper, and that moment of fear runs deeper than any horror game. It’s the understanding that, if you deal with the problem successfully and immediately, you’re good. But mess something up and you lose some progress. Barotrauma copies that formula. Most things you’ll do are pretty boring, but that just makes the scary stuff more delicious.
I probably admire Barotrauma more than I enjoyed it. I like the setting. The gameplay is very clever, even if it isn’t always exciting. I didn’t get a chance to get deep into co-op, but I can’t wait to try. It’s crazy to me that cooperative spaceship games aren’t an entire genre now, with dozens of indie games to compare. At the moment, Barotrauma may be one of the best trailblazers, giving inspirations for the developers of the future.
***PC code provided by the publisher***
- Submarine is satisfyingly complex
- Monsters are pretty darn scary
- Great co-op experience
- Muddy retro graphics
- Bots aren’t nearly as good as people
- Prepare to die