Nauticrawl is a game all about mystery, and I mean this quite literally. Aside from a handful of words explaining that you are a runaway laborer, there is no direction explicitly given to you. You're dumped in front of an instrument panel that you discover is your escape vehicle, but how do you drive it? What is it for? What are you escaping from, and where even are you? These are the questions you uncover slowly but surely as you try your best to throw the right switches at the right time to make it out of captivity alive.
The easiest way to describe Nauticrawl is like an escape room game that is also Flight Simulator. You're an on-the-run slave, but the only insight you have into the world you're trying to flee is behind an arcane set of panels, buttons, and switches. It's not even entirely clear what this vehicle looks like or what your surrounding environment is. All you know is that if you activate the right things in the right sequence, you should--in theory--be able to move around and find an escape.
You can search all you like in the cockpit for an instruction manual of some kind, but you will never find it. Instead, you have to rely on your instincts and do some experimentation to understand how your vehicles systems work and what they do. If you happen to run out of battery or breach your hull, it's game over and you have to try again from the beginning of the game, with nothing carried across your play session except the lessons you've learned from failing.
Discoveries in the depths
Nauticrawl isn't just a game about seeing how far you can fumble around with your vehicle. In fact, it should only take a few instances of operational failure for you to get a sense of how the vehicle works and how you can maintain its integrity (and fuel) to venture forth. Once you do that, though, you start understanding the world you're in, how dangerous it is, and how some of your mech's more advanced systems work.
Through all of these discoveries, you can start to piece together a narrative that has a definite beginning, middle, and end, though it is all delivered to you through computer readouts and your sonar map. All of this--the complete lack of direction, the high stakes, the unknowable quality of the game world--all end up creating a really intense and realistic-feeling experience that is only informed by your own lever tugs, button presses, and switch flips.
Crawling in the dark
I am not sure that Nauticrawl is for everyone. I'm not even sure I would have enjoyed as much as I did had I not picked up on vehicle controls by my third run and been able to finish the game from there (which I think is the intended ramp for most folks to follow, by design). All told, a complete successful playthrough takes a few hours, but the entire way is full of encounters and revelations that make you gasp and spike your adrenaline.
Some of this is just the way that you can get into super dangerous situations that you don't want to have end your run completely, but many other moments are just pure surprises about the game and its story that are just so cool and wondrous that you can't help but be in awe of them. If you can make it to a point where you're a relatively smooth operator in Nauticrawl, there is definitely more than enough payoff packed into the experience to make it worth your while.
The bottom line
Nauticrawl is a tremendous experience that makes every new discovery titillating, mostly because you have to figure it all out for yourself. It strikes a great balance where you feel free to experiment without ever feeling overwhelmed by the options at your disposal, and it does so while also telling a fascinating story and unpacking an entirely original world all while you sit in an isolated cockpit.