Nauticrawl Review: Crawling Through Endlessly Repetitive Trial and Error
If you're a world-class puzzle solver, there's a game you might be interested in. It involves an impossibly obtuse control panel and a submersible, and if you fail to properly solve the puzzle in time, you'll be crushed by the remorseless pressure of the depths or ejected from an alien machine into an un-survivable environment.
Still up to the task?
That's the premise of Nauticrawl, which puts you — a nameless, faceless worker identified only by a three-digit code — into a stolen underwater ship that you don't know how to operate.
You start with absolutely no clue of how to turn it on, let alone pilot it to the surface. It kind of feels like the sort of thing some might call a recurring, inescapable nightmare.
Survival Of The Persistent
First and foremost, Nauticrawl is slow. Very slow.
In many ways, it plays like a full-length Flash escape room popular circa 2009, and it's mixed with elements of old-school text adventures for extra flair.
Throughout Nauticrawl, there's the illusion of movement across the ship's sonar screen, but you don't actually go anywhere or see, well, anything else. Instead, the game takes place entirely within the confines of the submersible's cockpit, and it's exemplified by the tag line: "Theorize. Experiment. Repeat."
It's important to note the emphasis is very much on that last word: Repeat. Here's the story of how my first few hours of the game played out.
"Huh, I'm totally in the dark and nothing's turned on... What do all these unmarked buttons do? I'd better figure something out fast, because they (whoever "they" are) will definitely notice I'm stealing a nauticrawl unit at some point."
A truly genius idea pops into my head: I'll randomly pull levers and press tabs until something happens.
"Cool, the power is on now! Uh... except why is that blinking light bar rapidly depleting, and what is that wildly alarming beeping sound?"
I don't want to die in the dark, so I start frantically flipping switches hoping to make the sound stop, but with absolutely no clue of how the hardware works, I've run out of time and am sitting in the dark again, the battery apparently dead.
A few seconds later I experience a brief glimmer of hope when a covering pops open and a new button emerges.
Turns out my hope was unfounded because that's the emergency eject switch which only comes online when you run out of battery power. Know what happens to someone without a pressurized suit who manually ejects from a submarine? You guessed it, I'm drowning as I'm crushed to death. Good thing random worker #667 will shortly step into my place and start over from scratch.
This time I'm determined to figure out how to start the battery charger before running out of power. After an absolutely frenzied minute pulling every lever and mashing everything that looks vaguely like a button, I'm met with my first taste of success.
The generator is on and the battery is charging; I can actually operate this vehicle now.
Overzealous, I divert power to the engine and pull the lever to move forward... immediately crashing into a wall and destroying the hull's integrity. It's my second time dying and starting over in less than 10 minutes.
Random worker #668 appears and starts again. Thankfully, he's got my knowledge on how to turn on the lights, start the engine, and move forward, but this time, we're going to try to not immediately die.
After more random button pushing, the sonar screen finally flickers to life, and I have some basic idea of where the Hell I am and what direction I'll be crawling if I pull that deadly movement lever.
That means it's time to divert some power into the engine and go full speed ahead towards something that isn't a wall!
"What the Hell is that smell?"
Unfortunately, worker #668 didn't have any clue how to vent the engine heat, so about 15 paces later, the nauticrawl unit overheats and shuts down. The escape hatch button pops out again.
With a sigh, I start over as worker #669.
After going powering on again, charging the battery again, pinging the sonar again, and slowly moving around yet again, I finally figure out which rod to pull to vent heat. I'm locked, loaded, and ready to explore! What could possibly go wrong?
Turns out my nauticrawl doesn't have that much fuel, so I run out almost immediately exploring the starting area. That damnable escape hatch button pops out again, and I'm thinking about actually smashing my screen instead of lightly tapping the button.
Attempt number five gets underway, again repeating the same things over again, but this time, I don't charge ahead and stay close by to look for anything to salvage. Lo and behold, a broken nauticrawl unit from another unlucky escapee is on the ocean floor, and it doesn't take me very long to figure out how to salvage fuel.
Unfortunately, I have absolutely no clue how to transfer that fuel into my unit's tank, so the eject button pops open, staring at me with a level of taunting menace that a freaking button shouldn't be able to project.
That's the entire Nauticrawl gameplay loop, just endlessly repeated as you build on past failures until you figure out how to charge the hook and pick things up, how to navigate the sonar map, how to read transmissions, how to use the cloaking device to avoid defense turrets, and so on.
There are some minor randomized events and transmissions through the computer screen with each try, so it's not the exact same thing every time, but it's pretty close, especially when you consider the map remains the same on each an every playthrough.
This is what you will stare at for 95% of the game
The Bottom Line
- Unique premise
- Expansion of the classic "escape room" style to a full game
- If you liked Objects In Space, you'll probably get some enjoyment out of Nauticrawl
- Repetition to a masochistic extent
- Not a ton of actual gameplay
As a game entirely focused on trial and error repetition, Nauticrawl has one major flaw that's difficult to overcome: whether its five minutes in or two hours in, you are going to eventually hit a massive, immoveable frustration wall. It's probable you don't have the patience to work through it, either.
That flaw was glaringly highlighted by the guide sent to advance reviewers, which had every single button clearly marked and gave step by step instruction on what to pull in which order. The fact that reviewers would need that sort of thing to even start the game (and not throw their hands up in frustration and quit) says something about the sort of experience you can expect here.
Through sheer trial and error, it will probably take you double-digit hours to get through all three chapters and eventually make it from the nauticrawl unit to a zeppelin to escape. If you somehow manage to guess all 81 button presses and movement maneuvers correctly on the first try, though, you could get through this whole game in less than an hour.
Unfortunately, Nauticrawl lacks the major gameplay elements or visual designs that might keep you playing other purposefully difficult games. With a title like Death's Gambit, for instance, at least you have gorgeous pixel graphics and cool backgrounds to gawk at while dying constantly. Pathologic 2 has its bizarre atmosphere and incomprehensible dialog to keep you somewhat interested.
While playing Vambrace: Cold Soul, I spent 19 hours on the first level, but there's just no motivation to keep up that level of effort here because there's nothing going on that's interesting enough to solidly hook you. Sadly with Nauticrawl, I just don't care enough to keep trying, because all I have is the same damn screen to look at the whole time.
To be clear, this isn't an actively bad game — it starts, it runs without crashing, it has a distinctive graphical style — it's just not a particularly entertaining one.
Obviously, a certain section of gamers will absolutely love everything about Nauticrawl — and for that section of players, I could see this being a 9/10, must-play — but for anyone else, there aren't many compelling reasons to figure out the next mechanic and move forward another inch.
[Note: A copy of Nauticrawl was provided by Armor Games for this review.]