Submarines, aliens, clowns, cultists, and a rebellion against an oppressive government; All of these things can be found in one game—and it’s quite possibly one of the best games I’ve ever played. Barotrauma is a game taking place in the deep oceans of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, in which players act as members of a submarine crew navigating the frozen depths. From an incredible and eerie soundtrack to a system of complex mechanics, this game is easily a jewel in my collection.
I should clarify up front: While it does very much feature horror elements, it’s not what I would really call a horror game, so those who aren’t keen on the genre can rest easy. I’m not a fan of horror at all, but I absolutely recommend you play this game.
The game’s Steam page actually describes it as a “2D co-op submarine simulator” with “survival horror elements” rather than a straight-up horror game. Those that are into horror, however, might recognize the dev team at Undertow Games as the very same group who worked on the original SCP Containment Breach and will know that this game is a work of quality. Even if you have to go buy it now and read the rest of this article later, I would understand.
(Screenshot: The game’s dark and creepy main menu screen)
So, why is this game one of the greatest I’ve ever played? Let’s start with the sound design. I’m not a horror aficionado, in fact, I try to stay away from the genre when I can, but I know enough to know that audio and music are incredibly important in creating the atmosphere for a game.
This is something that Barotrauma does masterfully well. Beyond the fact that the game’s soundtrack is ominous and creepy, truly capturing the paranoia of drifting through a dark, cold alien ocean, there’s also the sound of the water. Even when you and your faithful submarine crew have staggered onto a station or outpost, somehow surviving a journey out into the depths, the sound of water is always around you, reminding you of the inescapable and crushing pressure of the seas beyond.
But perhaps the most incredible example of the sound design in this game is the very first sound you ever hear in Barotrauma (with the exception of the opening studio logos). Before you’ve clicked a single button on the main menu, before you’ve gotten into the game, you hear one sound; a distant, echoing, alien sound unlike anything distinctly familiar or earthly. I have already devoted over 200 hours to the game at the point of writing this article and to this day that sound never fails to give me chills. Every. Single. Time.
I cannot do it justice except to recommend you go and find the game’s soundtrack, find the track titled “Embrace the Abyss,” and listen to the first 15 seconds or so. Then listen to the rest of it, because this game’s sound design is amazing.
(Screenshot: Standing in the Reactor Room of my own submarine)
It might be a far cry from AAA titles like Call of Duty or The Last of Us, but Barotrauma is an excellent example of why video games don’t always need top-notch graphics to be impactful. The dark color schemes and gritty, dirty design of the game’s aesthetic contribute greatly to the gameplay. The outposts you visit show rusted metal walls, an aged feel that gives the impression these people are surviving on just what they have, doing what they can to get by with the limited technology they still possess.
When you venture out into the open ocean in your submarine, Barotrauma makes absolutely sure you’re surrounded on all sides by the crushing black waters of Europa. And you have no idea what’s out there. Only by navigating via the sub’s sonar will you have any impression at all of what might be headed your way, and even then you’ll just see little blips on the radar. You won’t know what they are until they’re right on top of you.
You wouldn’t think being any part of a crew on a submarine exploring the deepest depths of an alien ocean would be simple. Video games may not always be the best example of realism, but Barotrauma certainly doesn’t make it easy. In the game, you’re able to take on any of several roles, the main three being Captain, Engineer, and Mechanic.
While the Captain mans the helm, the Engineer maintains electrical devices, including power junctions and that little nuclear reactor that powers your submarine. The Mechanic, meanwhile, handles other devices onboard the sub and can repair doors, as well as the water pumps that are crucial for preventing your vessel from flooding if there’s a hull breach, and even fixing or modifying the engine of the sub itself. Other roles such as the Medic or Security Officer will be charged with keeping the crew alive, whether that means administering medical aid or fighting off alien threats from the icy Europan ocean.
Most players go multiplayer, crewing their submarines with groups of friends, and in fact, the game seems geared toward this cooperative playstyle, but you can also play single-player if you’d prefer a crew of bots. As someone who prefers the latter, I can tell you it’s just as fun and challenging. The mechanics themselves may seem simple at first, but the fact that they must all be managed together is what makes this game so intense and so much fun. As many times as I’ve only barely escaped an attack by a pack of mudraptors and staggered into the next outpost, I’m always ready to do it again.
Every journey in my sub is a nail-biting adventure and I’ve put hours into upgrading my faithful vessel. This game is not easy, but it’s definitely rewarding.
Factions and RPG Elements
Feeling like you need even more immersion into this game’s world? You’ll be happy to know you’ve got plenty of options when it comes to roleplay within the game, defining your character by the people they choose to help (or not help) on their journey. Those aforementioned clowns, cultists, rebels, and oppressors come into play whenever you make it through a stretch of ocean, maneuvering your way from one outpost to another.
Thanks to the game’s recent 1.0 update, which revamped the entire faction system, these outposts will now fall under the control of either the authoritarian autocratic government known as the Europa Coalition or the violent rebel group, the Jovian Separatists. The latter fights against the iron fist of the Coalition in the hopes of creating a more democratic society—except that they do so with bombs, so do with that what you will.
You also have the option of joining the two outcast factions, separated from society by their… odd quirks. In one, you’ve got the Children of the Honkmother, a band of clowns that roam the seas and play “pranks” on unsuspecting victims (This, I figure, is the devs creatively giving troll players an in-game canonical excuse to do their thing. Even on co-op multiplayer servers, there’ll always be that one guy clowning around.).
Meanwhile, there’s also the mysterious Church of the Husk, an outlawed cult worshipping an alien parasite known as the Husk. This parasite can infect a host and, after a series of progressively awful symptoms, kill them slowly and painfully and then take over their body.
They’ll also make you totally immune to the crushing ocean pressure and remove that pesky need to breathe oxygen for a bit before they do this, though, so this cult is technically a group of transhumanists as well as a religious group, its members obsessed with finding ways to “commune” with this parasite and retain control of their bodies while also taking on the benefits they offer.
(Image: Screenshot of a Separatist-owned outpost)
Steam Workshop Mods & Subs
Finally, if all that the base game offers isn’t enough for you, there’s plenty enough to explore on the Steam Workshop. Aside from incredibly complicated mods such as Neurotrauma, which overhauls the entire medical system, or a mod that takes a realistic approach to sonar and allows it to actually damage and kill you, there are also a ridiculous number of custom-made submarines in the workshop designed by other players in the game’s built-in submarine editor.
Everything from tiny shuttles to massive nuclear war vessels, you’ll find just about anything you could ever need for exploring the depths of Europa… aaaand obliterating everything that lives there with your explosive railguns. Don’t particularly like the sub you’re driving? Give it a tune-up of your own in the sub-editor, or even create your own entire sub from scratch!
In the end, there’s plenty the game has to offer, from clowns and cultists to custom-built submarines. On top of the incredible, chilling soundtrack, gritty graphics, and challengingly complex mechanics, you’re sure to have a great time diving deep into this game.
Barotrauma is available on Steam.
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