An early access arena shooter set entirely under the sea, Moonray Studios' Tidal Shock is a unique online romp that's absolutely worth its $8 price tag. Ignoring the above promotional art, work on 2017's underwater adventure Debris helped the small team to hone its approach to the setting into something that captures the wonders and scale of aquatic environments, designing them to be surprisingly easy to maneuver while somehow avoiding triggers of thalassophobes' greatest fears. It's understandably limited in scope for now, but its smooth animations, polished gameplay, and smart samplings from classic and modern multiplayer classics make it a sufficiently engaging title with a lot of room to grow.

Water levels are traditionally dreaded in games over their frequently poor layouts and awkward control schemes, so it almost seems strange that Moonray would choose to set their third-person shooter exclusively in one giant underwater map. However, those fears are largely unfounded here, as traversal in Tidal Shock feels unexpectedly fluid and predictable on both keyboard and mouse and gamepad. This intuitive movement is aided considerably by an auto-orientation option and a persistent onscreen indications of the player's pitch and which way is up. It feels at once well-acquainted to anyone who's ever played a game with underwater mechanics without any of the common input frustration.

That deep-sea navigation facilitates Tidal Shock's primary focus as a third-person shooter, which works well enough thanks to its familiarity. Much as it owes its grounded-yet-cartoonish aesthetics (as well as its modest economy of wacky DLC skins) to Fortnite, its third-person shooter mechanics will feel right at home to players of the battle royale title, complete with that game's shield and health system, damage number indicators, weapon rarities, and - to an extent - aiming. Those similarities aside, Tidal Shock is an arena shooter through and through. That's not only because of its dash, one-way shield, and rideable torpedo abilities being shared by all players to maintain balance, but also instant consumable and weapon pickups being strewn about the map, the latter of which are equipped in-battle instead of looted from chests.

Outside of a starting handgun, the game's loadout includes burst and automatic rifles, shotguns, a grenade launcher, and sniper rifle, and players can carry two primary guns at once. It's a decently varied collection of weapons for the map's engagement ranges, and players seem confident so far in trying out different weapons and tactics without a singular strategy having prevailed. That said, a three-decade-long history of online shooters makes it clear that a dominating strategy is bound to emerge, and some Tidal Shock's weapons' capability to score one-hit kills on unshielded targets means the developers will have to closely monitor player meta to prevent other weapons from becoming obsolete.

Although killing other players is important, Tidal Shock's premier (and, for now, only) mode is objective-based, tasking players with gathering energy pickups scattered throughout the environment and using them to power a generator, a zone that periodically moves around the map and only charges when players are close enough. It strikes a fairly solid balance between the Halo and Call of Duty franchises' King of the Hill and Kill Confirmed modes. The former is true for obvious reasons, while enemy player death drops are a convenient source of energy and weapons to help secure the main objective, encouraging players stay on their flippers and kill on-sight rather than passively rush to the objective and hashing things out there. Still, the developers say they're open to adding kill-based modes like team deathmatch, which seem like a logical update down the line.

The game's single expansive map is split into visually distinct sections, but it's designed to organically feed players to the reactor locations, the current one of which is always visible on the HUD. However, the moment-to-moment experience occasionally feels like a wild goose chase thanks to the yawning gaps that can sometimes separate a player from the objective, but the extra aforementioned movement options of cooldown-bound dashes and rideable torpedoes go a long way to close those gaps. That still doesn't quite address the fact that it feels like the generator either changes locations too quickly or that players should perhaps charge it a little more slowly, as some matches can run unsatisfactorily short if a skilled player gets an early leg-up on competitors.

As expected, Tidal Shock's early access state means there's a very limited selection of what players can currently experience in-game, and everything that's there isn't perfect at the time of writing. For now, the only playable 4-8-player mode is Free-for-All, with Duos and Squads modes promised to be coming soon. Finding matches outside of peak hours (a time window the game helpfully advertises) can range from slow to fruitless, and even when one is found, the game might occasionally freeze while loading the map. To their credit, Moonray Studios is doing a bang-up job of ensuring that there are always matches during peak hours by joining in with players during peak hours and using their easily accessible Discord server to foster a dedicated community.

Overall, Tidal Shock is a surprisingly polished multiplayer product with a unique nautical setting, embodying a microcosm of what makes many of gaming's best shooters so popular. However, it's unclear how well or poorly the game will ultimately do on Steam, and a multiplayer-only title like this lives and dies by its player count. Moonray is doing everything it can so far to keep players engaged, going beyond what many developers of bigger budget games often provide, but early access development can be tumultuous and long. Even their best efforts could still result in the game becoming a ghost town sooner or later, so the addition of currently missing private matches is a must-have if Tidal Shock hopes to have sea legs for anyone taken in by its solid design and charm.

Tidal Shock is available for early access on PC.