Barotrauma Impressions: Unique Roleplaying in An Unforgiving Ocean

Barotrauma has its issues, but you'll be hard-pressed to find another multiplayer roleplaying game as tense and engaging.

Every once in a while, a game comes around that you can't help but love despite its faults. In spite of all the frustration you experience with bugs or mechanics, you somehow keep coming back and bashing your head against the wall because the base of the game is just that fun.

Barotrauma's like that.

I've put some good time into Barotrauma over the past couple of weeks, playing with friends, getting us killed, and actually surviving a few missions. It's been a great time, and even with friends, things have been a delightful disaster.

Those who have played games like Space Station 13 or Town of Salem will be more familiar with what's required in Barotrauma than those still uninitiated into the exciting world of multiplayer semi-roleplaying games, where one naive newbie or clever traitor can ruin the whole mission for everyone involved.

Somewhat lifting the idea from Space Station 13, Barotrauma shoves a handful of players (and/or AI) into a submarine on Jupiter's moon, Europa. It then demands they play their role to keep the sub operable. Each role plays differently from the last, but just about all of them play some key role in maintaining the submarine and its crew.

There are a handful of roles to play, including:

  • Captain: The captain navigates the submarine and watches the sub layout monitor to look for hull breaches, leaks, and poor air quality.
  • Engineer: The engineer overlooks the reactor to keep the sub fueled and the reactor at a safe temperature.
  • Mechanic: The mechanic is tasked with repairing machines and equipment across the sub, as well as fixing leaks and operating the fabricator (crafting).
  • Medical Doctor: The medical doctor handles aiding crew members who have sustained damage.
  • Security Officer: The security officer mans the guns outside the submarine and are adept at personal weapon combat.
  • Assistant: The assistant just sort of does whatever it wants.

Each role has its job to do. The Captain is best left to their station to keep the submarine on track and the Engineer has to spend a fair amount of time at the reactor. However, the other roles have more freedom to wander the sub and do as they choose.

Every Barotrauma player will naturally gravitate toward a particular job. Since I hosted for friends and the AI can't be trusted to navigate the submarine, the game kept tossing me into the Captain role.

I've gotten pretty good at playing Captain, but I'm terrible at Engineer and Mechanic. My friends have gotten to be reasonably good Engineers and Mechanics, which are arguably more important than Medical Doctors and Security Officers. Assistants are just sort of there, but beware Assistants in lobbies that have the traitor setting toggled on.

Most of my time in Barotrauma has been tense. The planet's oceans are full of peril, from monsters both large and small, intense currents that can easily turn an easy trip into a harrowing one, and a maze of depths to traverse. Most of the stress comes from other factors, though. Your crew may drive you nuts.

Because of the delineation of tasks amongst the crew, you have to trust your fellow crew members to take care of their responsibilities. You have to trust your Engineers to keep the reactor running, you have to trust your Mechanics to actually repair stations and dive into flooded compartments to deal with leaks, and you have to trust your Medical Doctors to use the right medicine and not to inject you with hallucinogens.

Shout out to my friend Dave for injecting me with something to make me hallucinate fires, floods, and monster attacks. 

This need for trust basically relegates Barotrauma to a multiplayer game. You can play it singleplayer, but the AI leaves a lot to be desired. While you can switch which character you're controlling in singleplayer, it's clear the game is not made with that in mind. The AI's meant to help, but not meant to be relied on in times of true need.

Trust is also what makes multiplayer a scary concept for some, because you have to trust other players to know how to play their roles and to do so without purposefully screwing up the mission. That's a tall order, but surely it will happen. I know it will as the core of the game is too engaging not to garner players who want to actually succeed. Though it will surely have its fair share of those who don't.

If all this sounds good but sort of makes you nervous, you can try the trusty Assistant, the role with no purpose but to follow others around and try to learn skills and become useful. I suspect there will be plenty of Assistants wandering around in full clown outfits, honking horns, and playing the guitar just for fun or to learn the ropes, but that's part of the fun. Not everyone has to be in full work mode all the time.

Aside from all this, Barotrauma also has an in-depth submarine editor that is as overwhelming as it is impressive. It's something I want to get into but just haven't had the time to yet.

The game also has a character editor, which allows you to edit character appearance and animations. Character editing is easier than submarine editing, but it's not necessary and will likely mostly be used by players who prefer to roleplay.

This all sounds and is great, trust me it's a heck of a lot of fun. The biggest downside for just about anyone is the amount of bugs present in Barotrauma at the time of writing.

The AI has a few pathing bugs, so it can't be trusted to fix leaks in full. The AI will also decide it doesn't want to take orders anymore, and it will stall for an entire mission. Ace.

Additionally, the monsters of Europa's depths aren't the most clever bunch. You'd expect them to attack your sub, and they do... by rolling into it. They gnash their teeth and chomp, but they just sort of bump your sub into submission. I wish I had a good screenshot of this, but the only ones I have are of some of the bigger monsters, and those are best left for you to discover and freak out about yourself.

Hopefully, enemy behavior gets a tweak with release or soon after. While the tension is still high when you're being bombarded by a monster the same size as your submarine, the effect is dampened quite a bit by how goofily they just bump into the sub until they get blown to bits or you sink.

Lastly and this is a big one sometimes missions spawn with rock formations that are not conducive to finishing the mission at all.

More than once, the primary objective has been totally obscured by rocks with no discernible path to navigate or even swim to, making it impossible to fully finish the mission. Once my crew even had the sub spawn stuck between rocks and the starting station, making it impossible to move at all.

Despite these frustrations, I would still recommend Barotrauma to certain sorts of gamers in its current state and will recommend it in a heartbeat when it's more fleshed out and the edges smoothed a bit. It really says something when someone as asocial as myself is willing — and even looking forward  to playing online with others.

June 5 can't come soon enough, hopefully with a new build and a flood of new players.

Associate Editor

Ashley spends all her time playing games and studying languages, and it's a miracle she's not burned out on the whole thing after being a game addict since '89 (shout out to Love Shack by The B-52s). Classic annoying Sega kid, still hasn't let go of Sonic and prefers arcade-style games. Final Fantasy and SaGa rock whatever it is you like, chump.

Published Jun. 5th 2019

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