Review: Nauticrawl

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Review copy provided by publisher

Was I the only child who would read all the way through an instruction booklet before playing a new game? Apparently so, if the death of that venerable printing tradition is any indication. Now games pride themselves on being obtuse, and even make discovery of game mechanics and basic controls part of the experience. Fortunately, some of these games can be quite good, and Nauticrawl is the most recent to level such a challenge at the player. It does a fine job of it, too, giving you plenty of buttons to cautiously press and crunchy readouts to interpret. In fact, if it were a little more obtuse or a little bit deeper, it might have left an even greater impact.

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Welcome to the Nauticrawl, a cozy, submersible-like conveyance that is your one chance to escape certain death! Just getting the thing running without assuring your own death might be a challenge, though, because it sure doesn’t come with a manual and you sure weren’t trained for this. All these buttons and switches and dials do something, though, and as you start to scoot around and interact with things outside your motorized tomb, your journey and the stakes will start to become clear. The only way you’re getting to the end of this road is by learning to master your vessel, managing the resources you’re given, and outwitting the strange forces intent on stopping you.

I’m going to be careful about not going into too much detail about what you’re doing or how you do it, because Nauticrawl is on all fronts a game of discovery. From the moment you are deposited into a dark, silent chamber, it is entirely up to you to figure out everything. Experimentation will reveal how to power your vehicle up, how to understand your surroundings, and how to proceed towards your goal. It will also reveal what that goal is and why you are pursuing it eventually, though that will come a good bit after learning what buttons make you scoot and which buttons make you explode. You’ll likely die a few times before you really get things going, but after that it should be pretty smooth sailing.

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You could think of that as one of Nauticrawl’s problems, really. For a game entirely about discovery, the main moments of confused experimentation come in the first hour or so as you learn the logic of the controls. After that point the game will continue to introduce new mechanics and interfaces throughout its short runtime, but they all follow a similar logic to the original systems. Really the best parts of the game come right up front while you grope in the dark for meaning, and once you make that first breakthrough then the rest of the game is going through the motions. I know that could describe the process of learning any game but with Nauticrawl the controls are purposefully obtuse, so after you figure them out all that’s left is working awkward controls to accomplish what you need to do.

This isn’t to say Nauticrawl is a bad game, of course. That first hour really is something special, and the hints of narrative and world-building you get as you fumble around are pretty compelling. The developer was also wise to ensure that the acts of pressing buttons and flipping switches were as gratifying as possible, with rich clicks and pops to rival any polished UI. It’s just that it can seem a bit thin once the main mystery wears off, sped along by the notes you find that provide detailed explanations of the Nauticrawl’s systems. I’d call this a wise choice overall, to ensure that exploration leads to progress even without mastery of the interface, but it does hasten the end of the mystery and leave me longing for a bit more atmosphere or narrative intrigue.

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I find myself comparing Nauticrawl to experiences like CAPSULE and the crunchier chapters of Stories Untold, and it doesn’t quite manage to match the atmosphere those games do. Nauticrawl certainly makes more of a game out of the interface, and does it with some clever systems and gratifying experimentation. But there’s such a focus on that aspect of the game that, once the mystery is solved, the rest of the experience seems somewhat empty. For players keen on puzzling out interfaces and really learning to make the most of them, Nauticrawl is an easy recommendation. For everyone else, I’d consider how much time you want to spend in an awkward ship pressing buttons before really taking a dive on this one.

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