I’m standing in a respawn shuttle with a friend, scurrying over to our submarine as fast as humanly possible. And then suddenly, after turning around, I say to a friend: “Hey, how come the sub is on fire?”
“Nah, you’re crazy,” my mate says on Discord, ignoring me completely. Thinking they’re just blowing me off — they’re like that — I run around the rescue shuttle, looking for a fire extinguisher.
“Are you guys far away,” a third mate, the only one who didn’t have their original body crushed under extreme water pressure when our sub flooded, hurriedly asks. He’s in a bit of a pickle: some Cthulu-looking asshole is French kissing the hull of the ship with its 4 million pound head, in between bouts of just staring at the ship that is causing all on board to repeatedly vomit so much it’s causing organ damage.
“Hang on, I’ve gotta put this fire out first,” I shout, only for my other mate to chime in. “No, you’re legitimately crazy,” he laughed, saying that was all part of the game.
I clicked on my character to heal — nope, no crazy afflictions there. Clicking on my mate, who was busy helming our little rescue boat towards our original sub? 60 percent insane, apparently. Which is when it all clicked: I’m crazy, so the game makes me think everyone else is crazy.
“Shit, this is brilliant,” I said on Discord.
Out now in early access, Barotrauma is principally a co-op survival sim where you play one of several roles on a submarine. It can be played solo, and there’s some tutorials and campaign missions to get acquainted with the basics. But the campaign is still incomplete, and chaos is best shared with friends anyway. There’s support for up to 16 players, although some ships are designed for smaller groups, while other giant, hulking masses, might need at least 8 or 12. (You can also add some NPC bots if you need.)
When you start out, you’ll create a character and select up to three roles. These can include things like a Security Officer, who deals with threats internal and external; the Captain, who will generally be responsible for driving the ship; Mechanics and Engineers, who maintain the sub’s nuclear reactor and patch up various systems as they break down; and a Medical Officer who keeps everyone in check.
You’re not limited by your role per se — a mechanic can drive the ship, for instance, and anyone can grab a wrench or screwdriver to repair a busted pump in a pinch. Every character has a certain set of skill points assigned to various tasks though. So while you might be capable of quickly fixing the nuclear reactor, you might also give yourself a short electric shock and subsequent lacerations for trying. Hell, even the mechanic starting out has a chance of being knocked on their ass in an almost QWOP-like ragdoll motion.
You can play through a campaign which has the length and structure of something like underwater Dungeons & Dragons. You can also just play individual missions in multiplayer, and there’s a whole bunch of types that range from scavenging alien runes, pirate hunting, killing alien swarms, escort missions and more. There’s also a really neat in-game proximity chat system, so you’re only communicating to the person in the same room as you (or the person travelling outside of the sub with you).
There’s a lot to grasp in Barotrauma, which is part of the fun and the pleasure. The core design of how you move about borrows a lot from games like Terraria, where you’re dragging things to and from your inventory, or holding down both mouse buttons to use a plasma cutter or a welder. (An extreme example of this chaos is in the handcuffs. Say you’re the security officer and you want to deal with an unruly submariner. You can’t just activate the handcuffs and select the other player: you have to knock them out first, grab their body by pressing G, then drag the handcuffs from your inventory to their inventory.)
But while that friction makes the game a little harder to learn initially, it’s absolutely worth it as soon as a crisis emerges. And there’s always something to deal with. It could be pirates baring down on your, firing volleys into your hull while someone threatens to bust through the airlock above. It could just be a mission that’s asked you to restart a beacon, but you’ve gone inside the beacon only to realise it’s filled with husk-infected crew members. (And then you might become a Husk.)
You might be attacked by multiple crocodiles who have breached the sub, but you’re furiously dealing with a leak on the other side that’s flooded the reactor room. That needs repairs otherwise the pumps won’t work, so your panicked friend has welded the door shut (!) so you can repair in peace. Unfortunately, you’re not the actual mechanic, so every time you go to repair the reactor, your body flops limply onto the ground, causing further and further burns, and at this point you realise all the bloody oxygen tanks are on the other fucking side because nobody bothered to return the used ones to the oxygen generator.
My friends and I — having jumped into Barotrauma without doing the tutorial, because failing’s fun — were happily swimming along, until our captain screamed out on mic.
“What the fuck is this spooky clown shit in the ballast tanks,” they said.
You don’t have to play with it if you don’t want to, but there’s an entire traitor mechanic afoot as well. My party and I haven’t had a huge amount of success with it yet, simply because there’s always been other, bigger priorities. In one game, I spawned with a small message telling me to head to a certain section of the sub. There I’d find a particular drug, and I’d get more instructions afterwards.
I couldn’t find the drug at all, however, despite eventually scouring the entire ship. We eventually all died and respawned after being repeatedly attacked by a swarm of space sea crocodiles; we had to land the ship to dock with a nearby beacon, but that simply turned us into a sitting duck. Upon respawning, I wasn’t earmarked as a traitor anymore — that role transferred to our captain, who’d received a different mission entirely. (Which was a good thing: if I found the drug, the next job would have been to poison the whole crew.)
There’s six traitor missions in total, and they’re designed so that people aren’t encouraged to just straight up troll from the beginning. That encourages other players to calm down a little when it comes to flushing out the traitor. It’s here where the proximity voice chat works so well, because people lose their direct line of communication with the rest of the ship. You can equip a walkie-talkie so you can talk to the captain, but that’s also an inventory slot that you can’t reserve for something else.
It’s genuinely, truly brilliant. Deception games are nothing new, but Barotrauma incorporates it so well that it still feels fresh. And even if you’re playing with traitors disabled, the developers have done such an excellent job with the creepy underwater atmosphere that it still works as a cracking co-op survival sim on its own.
I had one moment that genuinely scared my partner so much she ran over to see if I was OK. I’d been mauled to death in the sub; my mates continued to battle the invaders back, repairing everything they could. But five minutes is a long time between respawns, and then there’s the travel distance between the respawn shuttle and your last position. And when I eventually got nearby, the continued attacks on the sub meant my mates were no longer in the same position. The sub had been barged off the small ledge it was resting on, sinking slowly to the bottom of the sea.
They were too busy to communicate this, however, and they were also still alive. So I had no choice but to venture out of the little respawn shuttle where I was, floating around in near pitch black darkness trying to find their location. I didn’t have access to portable sonar; that wasn’t in the respawn shuttle.
So I’m swimming around, with the only sounds coming from Discord and the low hum of my portable propellor engine. And then the whole screen has a flash: a giant Cthulian jellyfish-type creature just swims by and takes a massive chomp out of my leg. It’s sudden. There’s no way for me to see it coming. There’s no audio cues right until the moment it happens.
I’m not conditioned to deal with horror at all, so unsurprisingly I immediately leapt out of my chair, headphones flying. We’d been chatting over Discord with video, so my mates got the benefit of watching me nearly shit myself on camera, and the follow-on explanation to my frightened partner. There was no escaping whatever D&D book this underwater horror had leapt out of, and as it turned out, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The hull damage was so extensive that the sub fell to the bottom of the ocean floor, where the pressure was too great, even for the onboard diving suits.
I’d picked up Barotrauma during the recent Steam sale, which has ended, but you can grab it from Green Man Gaming now for $15.60 instead of Steam’s $38.99. It’s easily one of the most fun, spooky, crazy, chaotic games I’ve played in years, let alone this year. And I haven’t even gotten into how deep the campaign goes, the customisations available, the ability to craft your own subs, the roleplaying servers, or what you can do with mods.
Barotrauma is great. It’s so good that I’m almost mad at myself for not discovering or covering it earlier. But sometimes you discover some truly special creations when you’re stuck in lockdown. Barotrauma, easily, is one of those.