When a friend suggested that I add Subnautica to the Cache, I was intrigued by his description of the game. Science fiction and alien sea creatures and exploration…all sounded good to me. What I could not have known from his description alone was the depth (pun intended) of the experience that was to be had in this 2018 game from developer Unknown Worlds.
Subnautica is a first-person view exploration and adventure game set on an alien world mostly covered by water. As the game begins, the player is set on a spaceship that is crashing to the planet. Ejecting from the falling ship, the small escape pod lands in the water, held afloat by air bags on the bottom. Fires burn within the escape pod that quickly need to be extinguished and repairs have to be made of the smoking wires and components in the interior. These tasks act as the opening tutorial of the game, teaching the concepts of moving, using items, gathering, and fabricating. A quick pop out of the top hatch of the pod shows the burning ship in the distance and nothing else visible on the horizon. It was certainly a very isolating feeling looking out to where the sea meets the sky. At this point, there was no other choice than to venture underwater.
Thankfully, the ships’ crew must have known where they were going as the player character was already a pretty adept diver. From here, I was on my own to find food and water, blueprints for new equipment, and materials to construct what I needed for survival. The loop of the game is very much embedded in this idea. Keep healthy with appropriate food and water sources while expanding the search for the next best materials to craft gear. And the gear is not just limited to personal items, but also large scale components for undersea facilities and vehicles that will enable search and survival in the new alien world.
For those who read this as purely a sandbox experience, fear not. There is a mode in which you can explore and build to your heart’s content, but the standard game mode of “Survival” also gives story elements that require exploration and progression to learn the nature of the planet, what brought your ship to a crash landing, and what happened to the other survivors. The story is presented through radio broadcasts received in the escape pod, pointing to locations of other escape pods and rendezvous points. A journey to each of these reveals new biomes, blueprints, and materials. Data pads and other downloads discovered provide a new glimpse into the world, both of the fate of the ship’s crew and of what may have come before.
Speaking of biomes, the atmosphere and environment in Subnautica are what really bring the game together. Unknown Worlds excelled in creating a setting that feels real, that feels alive, and that feels dangerous. The shallows of the early game are teeming with life. Fauna of every variety swim through the waters, darting this way and that. Flora line the sea floor, providing an excellent backdrop as well as valuable resources. The visual of the scene is just stunning. During the day, the colors of both the flora and fauna pop on the screen, giving a scene that at times I just wanted to sit and watch. At night, the bioluminescent features glow against the darkness, providing light in what would otherwise be a black sea.
These shallows are in stark contrast to the depths of the world. Travelling to the edge of the shallows reveals cliffs and other features that fall away into the blue darkness below. Not being able to see further below provides a sense of dread of the unknown. It took quite some time before I felt ready to travel into these areas, worried about what lurked just beyond my visual range and how I would find food, water, and air.
The game is not without faults. There are a few bugs that cropped up here and there. In one instance, I was randomly launched from a vehicle high into the air, landing far away. Sea creatures also clip through the surrounding environment, disappearing from view before re-emerging a few moments later. Pop-in is readily apparent during travel, perhaps being the most jarring of the negatives in the game (I played the PC version on max settings). Some of the inventory management elements are also fiddly, creating situations of switching out what is being carried or running back to storage lockers to find the right materials. In the end, these faults are tremendously outweighed by the gameplay and environmental experiences.
The genre and gameplay of Subnautica is not going to be for everyone. Those who desire a more linear gaming experience may be frustrated by the time spent exploring and gathering resources. However, players who choose to crash land in the open water will find a beautiful world with good storytelling and a satisfying conclusion.
Image credits: Unknown Worlds Entertainment