The four horsemen, cursed runes—whatever you like to call them, the following tags on Steam instill doubt in the hearts of gamers worldwide: Early Access, Survival, Open World, Crafting.
After being burned by promising, albeit overly-ambitious titles like Starforge, Yogventures, The Stomping Land, Day-Z, players are understandably hesitant to throw their hard-earned dosh at fledgling titles within those seemingly doomed genres.
Seeing an actual 1.0 release [and not a fake one, like Spacebase DF-9] is rare enough. Impressively, Unknown Worlds Entertainment’s Subnautica managed to pull this off, after existing in an early access state since 2014.
As someone who actually enjoys these types of games when executed properly, I was excited to finally sink my teeth into a full release of Subnautica. Is it worth playing? Or do the four horsemen strike again?
Publisher: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Developer: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Platform: PC (Reviewed), Mac
Release Date: Jan 23, 2018
Players: Single Player
Subnautica begins with your character rushing into an escape pod and fleeing from your exploding spaceship, the Aurora. At the outset of the game, that’s about all the information you’re given. You’re knocked unconscious by a piece of debris, and wake up some time later to a fire raging inside your lifeboat.
You are immediately tasked with dousing the blaze with a fire extinguisher, and shortly after, you’re introduced to the PDA. It has been damaged, causing your collection of blueprints and data to be lost, but it’s in serviceable enough condition for your database to be rebuilt over the course of the game.
The rest of the narrative proceeds in this emerging style, mostly told through PDAs you find amid the wreckage of other lifeboats, as well as distress signals you’ll receive via the radio in your own escape pod.
At first, you’re given hope that other survivors yet live, but after finding the sorry state their pods are in, it’s clear that you were lucky to land where you did. Your lifeboat floated to the surface, a fire and some damaged systems the only adverse side-effects of your crash landing.
The first sight you’re treated to after climbing out of your lifeboat is truly breathtaking. A short cutscene shows you the burning ruins of your spaceship in the distance, and open ocean as far as the eye can see.
I’m terrified of the ocean, personally, so I was a bit hesitant to jump into the water. However, once you dive in, the sights and sounds of Planet 4546B’s sea immediately overwhelm your senses. A thriving ecosystem exists down here, with little fish gliding through the water, and larger predators giving chase.
Contending with the wildlife is one of Subnautica‘s greatest challenges. Small fish, like the giant-eyed Peeper and the aptly-named Bladderfish, will make up the majority of your meals on the first leg of your journey. The former, among many others, is rendered into cooked meals via your lifeboat’s Fabricator, while the latter is used to filter drinkable water. More on that later.
Among the more predatory forms of life in the game, Stalkers are the first ones who truly present a threat. Their scream signals an attack, and you’ve got to frantically swim away, lest you take a few nasty bites. Monitoring danger presented by the local fauna is important, but in addition to that, you’ve also got to keep tabs on your remaining oxygen.
At first, you’re limited by your oxygen levels, but soon you’re able to craft an air tank that lets you delve just a little bit deeper. By doing so, you’re able to find more materials to build things, as well as more lore about how you ended up in this situation.
This is the basic gameplay loop of Subnautica: explore, find materials, then use said materials to build things that let you explore further. You’ll be able to build a little hand-held deployable vehicle called the Seaglide, a submarine, even a badass mech later on in the game.
You’re also able to make underwater bases, in which you can place storage containers, upgrade machines, and all sorts of other fancy stuff. The need for food and water that I mentioned earlier becomes easier to manage at this point, once you’ve scanned enough wreckage to find a water purifying machine. You can even have an alien containment room, in which you can place multiples of the same species, and have them breed as a food source.
However, in order to get all this stuff, you do have to explore and scan ruined bits of the Aurora that’ve been thrown into the ocean, as well as abandoned lifepods and other mysterious areas. With the vastness of the ocean in Subnautica, it can become a bit frustrating when you just want to build something, but can’t for the life of you seem to find the blueprints for it.
The areas containing the best ‘loot’ also seem to have the most dangerous monsters prowling about. My first encounter with a Reaper Leviathan nearly made me brick my shorts—I heard an otherworldly scream from behind me, and through the murky depths emerged this enormous beast with multiple eyes, giant teeth, and mandibles that looked as if they could easily crush my puny Seamoth to bits.
The sound design and atmosphere Unknown Worlds have created is the culprit for my guts being spooked out several times during my playthrough. You really feel like you’re underwater, floating around in a foreign, strange world, with equally weird and terrifying creatures. As someone who is already afraid of the ocean, even putzing through safer areas in the game got me on edge.
However, Subnautica is not without its flaws. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a myriad of bugs that occasionally bog down the experience. My sound glitched out plenty of times, mostly when repeatedly surfacing and diving back down into the water. The game has a tendency to crash during the save loading process, and I even had a few scenarios where the floor of the ocean completely vanished.
None of these were particularly game-breaking, though, but loading a save and waiting the eons it takes to get back into the game can hamper the experience quite a bit. Apart from a bug that sent my Seamoth through the ground, making it irretrievable, most of the little technical hiccups were able to be shrugged off.
In the end, Subnautica manages to succeed where many others have tried and failed miserably. It proves, to me at least, that there are exceptions to the seemingly all-encompassing ‘four horsemen’ meme. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience, where crafting and exploration are complimented perfectly by the simultaneously beautiful and chilling atmosphere on display.
And, because I couldn’t resist making a jab at Hello Games, Subnautica is roughly the same length [about 30 hours] as the infamous No Man’s Sky. I can say, with absolute confidence, that this is the better of the two games in almost every way. Unknown Worlds also never lied about there being multiplayer, which is cool, even if I really wish there was.
Subnautica was reviewed on the PC using a review copy purchased by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.
The Verdict: 8.5
- Amazing sound design and atmosphere
- Encountering some of the more dangerous monsters is terrifying
- Satisfying progression loop
- A surprisingly decent story in a genre not exactly known for good narratives
- An early-access survival game that was actually completed!
- A plethora of bugs that momentarily take you out of the experience
- The grind for materials can be a little annoying at times
- Having to hunt around for specific blueprints gets frustrating