Keep Calm is the mantra resonating in my head as I scoop gems hundreds of meters deep in a massive underwater cave used as a breeding ground for leviathan class monsters. I turn around just in time to watch a giant sea worm destroys my ship. It sets its sights on me. Oxygen replenishment gone, turned around in this dark maze, giant ghost worm coming in for another attack run, it would be easy to panic. But instead, I heed the enlightened words of the holy cat poster – keep calm.
I flip to my handheld scooter, navigating through the crevices until I finally see the exit. Popping my emergency flotation device, I ascend to the surface with seconds of oxygen left. I’m stranded. Teleporting murder squids surround me and I have no medkit. But the tough part is over. Back at base, with a sliver of health left, beloved vehicle destroyed, I dust myself off, get a bite to eat and venture right back out, thinking about what to name my new submersible.
Boiled down, Subnautica is a descendent of the basic exploring/crafting/survival model popularized by Minecraft while capturing the sense of pioneering No Man’s Sky promised. You’re tossed into an alien world with nothing but a Star Trek replicator and have to figure out what the hell is going on. This first manifests itself as picking up anything not nailed down and hauling it back home to see what you can break it down and build it up into. You’ll build simple tools like the scanner, which allows you to discover new blueprints from oceanic wreckage.
These new designs require more exotic ingredients so you’ll wander out to deeper and more dangerous locales. Before you know it, the helter skelter ramblings of the first few hours become targeted strikes towards specific regions, for specific resource goals, to craft specific items. After many close calls and harsh lessons, you’ll become the king of this ocean, with a luxurious palace and stable of noble steeds to match.
While this may sound familiar, Subnautica transcends its predecessors and contemporaries in a handful of critical ways. On the surface, the ocean may seem like a big dumb sandbox since you can essentially do whatever you want from the get go. But make no mistake, it is a nuanced and finely tuned experience. Locales are in the same place between games, departing from the procedural generation that has both blessed and recently cursed the survival/adventure genre. By trading in the randomness the developers could craft a triumph of a game world.
From a purely aesthetic viewpoint, there are some exciting highlights. Graphically, the game is solid, but even on the highest settings, isn’t going to blow anyone away. The real coup comes in the art design. The ocean divides into ecological biomes with unique fauna and landscapes to match. Each biome conveys a distinctive feeling, from the whimsical discovery of the colorful shallow reefs to the grim resolution of the ghastly depths.
Cruising through these places has a magical quality to it. Everything from the fish swimming by, to the plants gently waving, to the picturesque landscapes all feel so in place that you could easily mistake moments for a pre-scripted cutscene.
Traversing the depths
Intense emotional moments punctuate each new foray into the depths. Wonderment at discovering a new biome, relief from a narrow escape with a giant monster, fear from a blood curdling scream of an unknown creature, panic as you realize you don’t remember where you are inside a wreck, it all does a wonderful job of immersing you in the world. Throughout the game, you run the gamut of intense but natural moments that make you feel like a survivor. It’s a ride only the best of games match. The way it all fits in with the world is incredible.
The map layout is also great, both silently guiding those who need it and minimally restricting those who don’t. Despite the large explorable area and player freedom, you have a good idea of where you’ll be comfortable and where will push you to the limit of what you can do. While maybe a bit contrived to have the map generally increase in difficulty the further out you go, there are no wasted trips even if you find out the direction you’ve taken was geared to a lower level.
Traversing the depths, especially early on, is never routine. It always feels like there are plenty of small semi-hidden areas or wrecks to pick through. There’s also a real natural sense of escalating danger as you progresses through the world, starting from the innocuous baby shallows to the horrifying bowels. It’s impressive how comfortably the game transitions the danger level; from literally being farted on by a manatee to being in pitch black surrounded by hungry sea dinosaurs.
These challenges necessitate an equal escalation in technology. Luckily the game seamless transitions you from oceanic Fred Flintstone to George Jetson. Reminiscing about how you started by grabbing random mushrooms off the shallow reefs to relaxing with a nice coffee in your nuclear powered sea base to plummeting kilometers deep, combating monstrous beasts from the comfort of your submarine base is deeply rewarding.
Between these two endpoints, the distinctive stages of progression are natural. You always feel like you have realistic, defined goals. Figuring out where and how to harvest specific materials to craft the tools you need is a fun and integral part of the experience; relief from a narrow escape, fear of the unknown as new feral screams fills the black depths, the wonderment of discovering a new biome. However, on the way you may find that there are some welcome technological surprises that range from interesting curiosities to total revolutions.
It unfortunately loses the balance in the late game. The surprise advancements dry up and the regimented dives become tedious. Even if there were just some interesting cosmetic items to put in my base, or some rare fish to put in my aquarium the wonderment could continue. But there is definitely a point (a bit too early on for my taste) where the game throws its arms up and says that’s all folks. A single-minded push toward the finish line is the only real option left. Despite this, the yin and yang of discovery and control is well honed and effectively drives your actions for a large swath of the game.
Watered down story
It is a bit surprising that these are the motivation. The plotlines should be pushing the game along. From splashdown, seemingly ominous events are noted on the horizon. For instance, during the early putzing around in the kiddy pool beginning phase of the game, your computerized assistant repeatedly informs you that the downed mother ship is going to catastrophically explode in a dwindling amount of time.
The natural reaction is to swim towards the ship and attempt to prevent this explosion. Unfortunately radioactive water buffers the area and prevents you from getting near. Confused, you head back to your area and return to what you were doing. The ship does eventually spectacularly explode. I didn’t realize it since I spent the event in a secure building. That seemed like the logical thing to do given the warnings.
To my dismay, all that functionally happens is that I’m handed a radiation suit blueprint and told I can go play over there now. The big event had no real impact on anything. This is one of a handful of these doomsday scenarios lined up one after the other. You learn to just ignore the drama since neither a coherent timeline or actual danger seem to exist.
Subnautica falters when it come to scripted elements. The main storyline is competent and relatively interesting but the fake time pressures are off putting. I understand the need to avoid prematurely ending a playthrough by squishing an underdeveloped player between a save point and an catastrophic event they haven’t resolved. But without real consequence, there’s no motivation or meaning to really push through the story.
There are some striking and impressive moments along the main plotline, particularly one involving the potential rescue ship. Unfortunately the punch of these moments can’t cover up the thinness of the integrated story. It literally phones in most quests, as your radio mysteriously picks up distress calls. But there’s not much to see. These calls are nothing more than a waypoint for certain early technologies.
It’s fine to point players in the right direction. But putting more than a cursory excuse worth of effort into making these points interesting would have been very refreshing. There are a few other loose threads to follow with good ideas but none feel fully fleshed out. Perhaps it’s unfair for me to expect compelling and diverse plotlines scattered amongst the wrecks of the ocean. I realized that the most interesting thing I would find would be a cosmetic item for my base.
Should you buy it?
Yes. Despite my crotchety nitpicks, Subnautica is an excellent game punctuated by strong emotional moments of wonder, fear, weirdness, despair and great triumph. So many of these are created by and are unique to the player. It speaks to a game’s quality to be able to create such organic and intense experiences.
For an open world game, it’s pleasantly surprising how bug-free, technically sound and fair everything is. Sadly the scripted experiences mostly can’t and don’t try to stack up but I’ll take a rich world littered with my memories every day. Nobody is going to remember the poor sods of lifepod 4. But creating moments that will really stick with you is rare and should be praised to the depths.
Available from Steam