by Jason Parker (Ragachak)
Far too many survival games rely on cheap jump scares and run-of-the-mill horror tricks to throw people off. That’s one of the reasons I’m not a fan; it’s not real terror. It’s some kind of fake cheap thrills to make people jump or frighten them. But the notion of being stranded in the ocean, with no way out, and no escape, no one to talk to, just strange alien aquatic monsters. There is a need to fend for yourself or be consumed by the darkest depths of the ocean, and the entities that await there. That is exactly what Subnautica offers up. You crash land on an alien planet and have a handful of trinkets to get you through. Subnautica offers up real, sincere psychological horror for me, at the very least. I cannot think of too many real things more horrible than slowly dying in the ocean. Subnautica offers quite a few different ways to approach this world, from the ultra-casual Creative (no death, no need for food/water, can create anything anytime), to the ultra-hardcore … Well, Hardcore (one life, no o2 sensor notifications).
The story is fascinating, and you do have a helpful AI that guides you where you should be going and what you should be doing. Another thing I liked was how clever the writing was. It was snarky, funny, and I like that. When your only real communication is with a machine, it can feel terribly impersonal and boring. That was not the case in Subnautica. But this is not a game that will hold your hand, except on the easiest of difficulties, and that only really tells you what the items do. Creative mode also disables the story though, so it’s just a way to explore the map, see where things are, what enemies lurk beneath the waves, and to design the underwater base of your dreams. The deeper you descend into the water, the greater the threat, so it’s pretty nice to try it in Creative first to see just how far down you can go. After all, there might even be an island you can get to, that holds very useful structures to scan, and food to eat. So maybe having an idea of where that is first can make the game less terrifying. It won’t, but it’s nice to have hope.
Speaking of Scanning, that is the first major thing you want to craft, the Scanner. Then you scan everything you come across. Every mineral, every fish, every Leviathan, coral, plant. If it lights up, you better press R2, and scan that thing. Scanning can offer a great deal of insight on what you can use various flora and fauna for, not to mention, a way to get blueprints. There are some very useful broken pieces of equipment beneath the ocean that you can scan, figure out exactly how to build them. Some things are unlocked via progression (a better Oxygen tank unlocks when you build your first one, for example, or the Radiation Suit, that unlocks via story), but many things are found simply by scanning. I do appreciate that you don’t have to build walls, floors and ceilings. Instead you’ll find blueprints for full rooms and connect them with passageways. It’s way less infuriating, but finding the perfect spot to begin is actually the hard part. You need to find a spot in the ocean that’s got enough floor space. This is not a game that you will be done within a few hours of gameplay either. I still have so much to do, and I’ve died more times than I’m comfortable admitting. But that’s the name of the game! Survival experts surely do better than me, but I absolutely love the concept.
Speaking of which, the game always starts the same. It’s not procedurally generated, but a version of this game where that *did* happen would be absolutely insane. You’re in an escape pod, and upon surfacing, you can see your ship on fire, leaking fluids, and radiation. Getting too close will start harming you, without the Radiation Suit. Eventually, it will explode, and it’s quite the sight. It’s yet another stunning visual offering from this game. But at the start of the game, you’re going to spend a lot of time diving back under the water and coming back up to refill your o2 tank. The first major item I built (even before the scanner) was the better o2 tank. That way I could stay down just a little longer. But I did notice that if you go too deep with a low-grade tank, it starts to use more of your oxygen than normal. The pressure matters and you need to stay sort of shallow to start with. But it’s going to be a lot of diving near your pod, finding whatever scraps of metal you can, and catching whatever fish are nearby. This was the hardest part for me on a controller – catching fish. They’re pretty quick when you’re nearby, and you need them for both food and water.
In your escape pod, there’s a crafting station, where you can turn certain fish into food and water, and when you can find salt deposits, you can make “cured” fish, that will last longer. That’s another important note: fish that you have in your inventory will go bad, and will give you less back (hunger/thirst). I found myself waiting until I was about half empty on the hunger/thirst meters, then stopping what I was doing, to go hunt down food and potable water. Eventually, you can make potable water other ways, but starting with the fish is a good idea. Speaking of this grinding for materials and survival potables, the story does not rush you. If you decide you don’t want to work on your current objective, you can just go exploring in the depths, make a few floating chests to store titanium and other minerals in, and explore. This ocean planet is vast, and there is so much to see and experience. Not to mention, you have a handy PDA that will keep track of your current objectives, what blueprints you have, things you’ve scanned, and what items you’re currently after. That way, you can explore, tab over, look at that, and return to the depths. However, having it open is not going to pause the game. I highly recommend actually pausing.
Trust me, this story is worth experiencing, but do it at your own pace. Don’t feel like you need to rush. Because this is one of the most beautiful games I’ve played in what feels like years, and it’s mostly underwater. Sound and music being muffled by the ocean and your suit is a great way to treat tension and a sense of ill-ease. As time progresses, the world shows off exactly how far this engine can and will go to create tension, and use the atmosphere as both a weapon and a canvas for art. The coral reefs, the way the ocean slowly gets darker the deeper you go, the schools of fish swimming around, the occasion (but terrifying) Leviathans that have no fear of you, much less anything else. Then, as the sun sets, without a flashlight, you are pitched into an unending, terrifying darkness. The only light comes from the glow from coral or fish, but that’s far and few between. You can occasionally hear horrific roars, muffled by the water, or the odd bite from a very aggressive fish. Without a knife, you won’t really do much to stop them, either. I saw a few “weapons” in the Creative mode, but they’re less weapons and more utility. One pushes/pulls objects, and one freeze/stops other fish in your path. But the knife? Get the knife.
It’s Called a “Leviathan”: 4/5 (Great)
While the mysterious shapes and breathtaking visuals beneath the waves are without a doubt remarkable, there are a few issues with the game that are worth noting. The first and biggest for me was about a 40% of the time when I saved, the game would crash, and I would lose a half hour or more of work. I’m grateful at least, when I die I only lose a few items I collected, because when a save file doesn’t work, you lose far more. There is also a jarring, horrid slowdown when surfacing on the water. This did not happen all of the time either, but it was enough to warrant mentioning. This is the first time I can think of where a game’s atmosphere and theme made me feel real and sincere terror. The deeper into the ocean I went, the more I worried, the more I felt like this would be the time I didn’t make it back to the surface. I found myself holding my breath as I rose to the surface again and again. Subnautica is a game I will have to take slow, and design a submerged base at my leisure because it’s worth it. I have never played a survival game that is quite like Subnautica. Despite being trapped in a vast, endless, impossible ocean, it’s anything but empty. Every bit of it is used, and every biome is clear and easy to pick out. It’s absolutely brilliant, equal parts beautiful and terrifying.
Note: A game key was provided for review purposes.