Ryu’s Musings – Subnautica

box artLanguage: English
Developer: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Publisher: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Format: Steam
Type: Survival
Demo Box: PC
Synopsis: Descend into the depths of an alien underwater world filled with wonder and peril. Craft equipment, pilot submarines and out-smart wildlife to explore lush coral reefs, volcanoes, cave systems, and more – all while trying to survive.

Subnautica is another survival game that has finally been released after an age in Early Access. So what makes this game different from all the others in the genre? Firstly, it’s single player only, the first time I’ve seen a single player survival game! Secondly it’s based almost entirely underwater.

Part of me does wonder if a single player survival game can really, well, survive. Almost all of the ones I’ve seen have been multiplayer, and a lot of the game play fun comes from the multiplayer interaction. This is especially true of the early game, where you’re running (or in this case swimming) around looking for resources. The multiplayer/coop aspect of survival games makes this tedious part of the game more bearable.

Subnautica being a single player game, doesn’t have that. So yes the early game does drag on and become tedious. Since not only are you out for resources, but also for debris to scan for blueprint fragments. Some of these are useful and some are cosmetic, and some are a pain in the arse to gather, requiring many different parts to be scanned.

All the while you’re battling against running out of oxygen, food and water, which also has to be sourced, gathered, cooked and purified.

However what makes the early game less tedious is the environment. Being underwater it’s a new experience not usually seen in games. You’re in a new world, that I can honestly only call beautiful. The world is vibrant, full of colours and life, both friendly and hostile.

I would have called it perfect, except for the horrendous pop-in for, well everything. Pop-in is usually something I don’t care about as it’s generally not to bad and most games try and obfuscate it with other things. However in this game the pop-in is so close and jarring it’s impossible not to notice it. You’d be swimming along and then suddenly a fish, or bit of environment would just suddenly appear in front of you.

Like most survival games the story is bare bones, and in this case was a genuine ‘after thought’ and not part of the original concept. The start itself is generic, your ship crash-lands on a water planet. You have to survive long enough to find a way off, while countering an alien disease, and rescuing another alien.

A number of critics have likened Subnautica to the likes of Amnesia, calling one of the most terrifying games ever made. I have to wonder if we played the same game, because that was not how I felt playing the game. Sure, it has it moments of giving you a heart attack, caused by a jump scare. Yet at no time during any of my playthroughs, even my first (which I will admit was a thrilling ride!) did I ever feel the abject fear that Amnesia and other games like it (Fear for example), have given me.

So, no I don’t think it’s deserving of been placed on the high pedestal that Amnesia resides on.

However, as I said, the first play through you do will be an exhilarating ride of discovery. As you fight with your sense of direction (something you can lose!) and with drowning when you delve to deep into a cave system and get lost. So in that regards I do think it deserves high praise, but thats where I’d draw the line. At no time in my playthroughs did I feel fear or terror.

Some point to the fact you can’t kill enemies as to why it’s a ‘horror’ game, and I disagree. The game gimps you early on, deliberately. The first knife you get is pretty much useless on the wildlife, and at best tickles them. Even small scale critters (those damn spiders!) which look like you can stomp on to kill, aren’t killable. This is not horror, this is artificial difficulty one to make the game harder. It makes not logical sense, which frankly just lead to frustration for me.

It felt like it was being done to deliberately slow down my progression and force me to go on a tedious blueprint hunt. Now for some of the critters, not being able to kill or hurt them makes sense! I feel however, the extent Subnautica takes it to is step to far.

Like all games in the genre Subnautica has a crafting system. Which I kind do like from a graphical stand point. The 3D printer was a nice touch, though a survival boat losing everything in the data banks was yet another frustration. As I said the having to go hunting for parts to scan to unlock blueprints grew tedious after a while. This was due to the huge number of scans you need, and if you scan something you already have you get nothing worthwhile for it, it’s a time sink.

The first part of the game, is a tedious chore of diving then surfacing to breathe, and even with the larger O2 tanks it’s still a PITA. It’s not until you unlock and build the Seamoth, your first submersible that you can finally start to real enjoy the environment your in. This is also one of the second bottleneck in the game. Once you get the Seamoth a lot of areas open up, but to really make progress you need to be able to go deeper, to do that you have to craft new parts and upgrades for the Seamoth. However to get the materials for that you’ve got to go deeper than you can. It becomes a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario.

It is, however, a beautiful environment! I can’t say that enough, even with all it’s flaws this is one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played.

Now, I will admit the story itself, despite being cliche as all hell, would have been even better if there was more to it. Because it’s an afterthought the story doesn’t really feel part of the gameplay. Rather it feels separate from everything thats going on around you. Also, to be honest, the story is meh. I gave up paying attention to it since after a few logs it pretty much became same old same old.

However, I can forgive this, since lets face it, in survival games the story is never the main selling point!

Another thing against the game is that unlike other survival games (looking at you Empyrion and Ark) there’s no randomised starting point. No seed for changing the world and resources, it’s all pre-generated. No matter how many times you start a game your going to be in the exact same starting place, with the exact same layout. Hell even blueprint locations are the same. The only thing that seems to change slightly is the location of resources, but even thats such a minor change it may as well not happen.

What this does mean is that re-playability is out the window, which is a shame. However I can not deny that playing this for the first time is a truly mind blowing time. Even if you never play beyond the first time, I think it’s well worth it’s asking price.
For me, personally, I have to admit that I’ve no interest in the main game. Sure I dropped around 60hours in it, and it was fun for a good chunk of that. That said I never got to the end game, I got bored and frustrated.

Where I then have spend the most of my time is in the creative mode, where you literally get handed the keys of the world and you can create your own undersea world! Bioshock anyone?? I’ve spent a huge amount of time in the creative mode building my under water city, and frankly this has been the most fun of the game for me.

So, lets wrap this up. The core game is interesting, and the gimmick of the game makes the initial grind bearable. However I feel the creative mode is where this game excels and stands proud on it’s own merits. I can only imagine how awesome this would be to play in VR!

So, lets wrap this up. Do I recommend this? Hell yes! The game has it’s issues sure, both in performance and stability. However I’ve not had this much fun in a creative mode, probably ever. It’s well worth picking up if only for the creative mode alone!

What’s more the game is really quite cheap in comparison to others, running around £20/$25. For this price point, I have to admit it was worth it. I hope that over time Unknown Worlds can fix the technical issues the game has, and get the pop-in down to a more reasonable level.

Author: Ryu Sheng