Nauticrawl is a simulation puzzle game that throws you into a strange alien vehicle with the goal of escaping oppression, and consists entirely of switches, buttons, radars, and screens. Even though that may sound a bit uninteresting on the surface, the game is quite surprisingly really engaging and atmospheric. Topped off with very little hand-holding, permadeath, and valuing knowledge above all else, it delivers an interesting and unique experience. Nauticrawl is a good example of doing more with less, while feeling completely fresh and original.
The gameplay has a steep difficulty curve that rapidly plateaus after clearing the initial stage a few times. Learning how to operate the game’s various systems evokes the feeling of learning how to operate an airplane without any guidance. Nauticrawl relies on the player’s own intuition, while very slightly guiding them towards understanding how to use the titular vehicle. Knowing is most of the battle, but small accidents or mistakes can still lead to a game over. The permadeath highlights the challenge of escaping, while emphasizing the importance of knowing how to properly operate the many parts that make up the Nauticrawl.
Mechanically, the game demands that the player learns the systematic logic behind enemy detection and vehicle maintenance. At first, even starting up the Nauticrawl’s engine was a complete mystery. However, it eventually became very easy to operate after taking the time to really learn what every lever and button did. Occasionally, the game has the player doing specific actions, such as picking up radio signals or checking vehicle health to ensure that the player is well aware of the Nauticrawl’s numerous facilities. Thanks to the game’s intuitive design as well as the developer’s trust in the player adaptability, Nauticrawl is completely devoid of any hard-line tutorial or hand-holding sequences.
As an experience, the game effortlessly provides an exciting dive into entirely unfamiliar interfaces. However, it lacks a mechanical depth beyond understanding how to operate the vehicle efficiently and effectively. As mentioned before, knowing is most of the battle. This acts as a double-edged sword due to the lack of challenge once the player moves past the initial hurdle of learning how to operate the Nauticrawl. Energy, stealth, and inventory management all have initially a degree of mystique to them, but a skilled player will easily breeze through levels with little difficulty and a very low chance of failure.
With inspiration from the roguelikes, permadeath sets the stage for teaching the player. Every death provides further understanding on the failure states, while emphasizing just how difficult it is to escape in the narrative. There’s a degree of procedural level generation that keeps the game feeling fresh during the learning phase, but it just isn’t enough to incentivize replaying the campaign. So, Nauticrawl lacks replayability once the first run is over due to the low skill ceiling and shallow mechanics. However, the initial playthrough is fulfilling enough to be worth experiencing for the rewarding nature of figuring out exactly what makes the vehicle tick.
Beyond the gameplay, Nauticrawl excels in the atmosphere, especially with a pair of good headphones. Operating switches, buttons, and levers all have satisfying sounds, though admittedly, it would've been nice to have visual indicators for interactive objects. Sound cues inform the player of various states along with strong visual notifications. Hostile enemies make creepy sounds that alert the player of their presence even without the radar. Overall, the game definitely does a good job at making the adventure feel authentic.
Nauticrawl is an absolute treat to play. What it lacks in depth is made up for by its sheer devotion to an intuitive design. The game eschews the excessive tutorialization found in many modern titles in favor of letting the player learn for themselves. On the surface, Nauticrawl is a difficult, permadeath experience, but once the player moves past the point of learning how to best operate the vehicle, it quickly becomes less about survival and more about reaching the final sequence. Regardless, Nauticrawl is highly recommended for those who are interested in innovative, unique journeys that center on learning nuanced systems.