Barotrauma Preview – Under Pressure
To the valiant adventurers reading this now: know that I died from either suffocation, or decompression sickness, or alien attack, and that the companions who rest beside me are not entirely to blame for my premature demise(s).
Welcome to Barotrauma, a multiplayer resource management game recently released on Steam in Early Access form and rather aptly named after an injury caused by a change in pressure around one’s ear. Barotrauma is a game that can be as foreboding as its name implies; however, juxtaposing utter terror with moments of surprising levity is a needle that co-developers FakeFish and Undertow Games skilfully thread. The player alongside their crew are tasked with piloting a submarine through the depths of Jupiter’s waking nightmare of a moon, Europa. The crew might consist of controllable AI characters, or players can choose to go co-op and navigate Europa with fellow human beings. And I cannot stress enough how much more fun — and silly — it is to go multiplayer.
Each character has a specific role to fulfil in sync with the rest of the crew. Some might elect to play as the sub’s medical officer and run around performing CPR and wielding a syringe gun. If engineering’s more your bag, then it only makes sense to hang out and experiment with the sub’s reactor (what could go wrong?). More controlling players can call shotgun on the captain’s role, leading the operation, issuing orders, and trying to drive the unwieldy — and in my experience, usually ailing — submarine. Perhaps you just want to fight aliens and wield some sweet weapons – in this case, the crew’s security officer is the obvious choice. Those who play games the way I do, which could most generously be described as ‘incompetent’, can play the assistant and basically be the crew’s Wesley Crusher while learning the ropes. Of course, one option is to eschew the whole notion of roles and simply run around in a clown suit, beating the AI or co-op friends with a crowbar and rag-dolling at random…which is absolutely not what I did.
Barotrauma takes its cues from FTL, sending the submarine from point to point on Europa’s procedurally generated map in an attempt to eventually make it to the centre. Along the way players can elect to accept assignments, which can roughly be divided into cargo-toting or hunting missions. It’s also possible to hire additional crew members at checkpoints, repair the sub, and buy supplies and better gear. Visually, the game is dark and claustrophobic. As unappealing as that sounds, it really works to drive home the feeling of being immersed in an unequivocally cruel and confusing world. Anything can and will go wrong at any moment. Just when it seems that you and your companions have everything under control — at the very moment of thinking you’re really getting the knack of this deep space exploration caper because things are running so smoothly, and the team is operating like a well-oiled machine — disaster will strike.
What form this disaster may take is up to the RNG gods (Unless, like me, you’ve explicitly invited danger by way of your objectively incorrect driving technique and subsequent inevitable collision). Managing the submarine is an exercise in multi-tasking, requiring constant vigilance and coordination with the crew to detect and repair any stress or deterioration to its parts and structure. The reactor could overheat and trigger a conflagration, or the entire submarine could flood because of that little, not-so-insignificant hole forming in its airlock. Both player and crew will be sent scrambling to locate and stock up on whatever tools they need from the many supply caches around the sub, be that ammo, medicine, parts, or diving suits.
And, oh, the creatures you’ll see. The inhabitants of Europa’s depths are stunningly imaginative and deeply horrifying. It’s all well and good when they hypothetically exist outside the small world of the sub, but when they suddenly manifest in the corridors for no apparent reason and begin punching holes in both the submarine and crew — ah, heck! Even when attacking from the outside, they’re pretty darn scary and can do some serious damage if the security officer can’t torpedo them down in time.
This ability to inspire a very particular suspense-driven dread is where Barotrauma really shines. It’s not a game that will scare with jump-frights or gore. It’s about that feeling of being trapped in a claustrophobic space in an extremely dangerous and alien environment. It’s knowing with absolute certainty that something is going to happen, but not knowing when it will occur or what it will be; only that it won’t be exactly a positive experience. But it could, potentially, feature a homicidal assistant running around in a clown suit causing havoc.
There’s no denying it, Barotrauma doesn’t pull any punches; it’s difficult, really difficult. It’s an unquestionably harsh lesson in dealing with hardships. But once it gets its hooks in, it doesn’t let go. Even after your 50 bajillionth death.
C’est la vie.