Fear and the Fantastical: Subnautica Review

This rewarding open-world survival-adventure goes deep

Subnautica
Release Date: 2018 (1.0, beta in 2016)
Developer: Unknown Worlds (Natural Selection series)
Platform(s): PC, Xbox One (still in beta)
Genre: Survival/Open-World
Review By: Brandon Wright
Review Date: August 3, 2018
Spoiler-free

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What lies beneath these waters?

I first played Subnautica in early 2017, when the game was in beta. I put in a lot of time then; I got drawn back in with news of the official release on PC in January this year and finally beat it just recently. My review is of the release version of the PC game.

Subnautica throws you into the deep from the get-go. The game begins with your space ship, the Aurora, crashing into an ocean planet. You appear to be the only survivor of the crash. Now, all you have between you and death by starvation, thirst, or unknown creature is your broken-down lifepod, a pair of flippers, and your brain. Good luck!

As this is, at its core, a survival/crafting game, your first order of business will be keeping yourself fed and hydrated, and perhaps making a base to keep out the bad fishies. In “Survival” mode, (the standard mode, and the one I recommend playing) you must balance various resource meters (food, water, oxygen, health) in addition to the other various activities Subnautica offers. Other modes eliminate food and water considerations, if that’s more your style. Whatever… floats your boat. Sorry…

Thankfully, what takes this game from being a typical survival game to a grand adventure is an engaging storyline and a beautiful, fascinating world to explore. The core game loop consists of exploring various biomes of the world to obtain resources and blueprints, allowing you to construct new and better gadgets, which let you explore more of the world, and so on and so forth. This mechanic is very satisfying and you gradually feel that you are beginning to get more and more of a handle on this alien world.

That being said, you never truly feel comfortable, because Subnautica continually challenges you with its progression. In some ways, Subnautica feels like a 3D underwater Metroidvania, which makes for a very unique experience. You will on occasion come across areas or resources which are inaccessible until certain upgrades or items are attained/created. This never feels in-your-face or overly restrictive because these “gateways” are presented in very natural ways. You can’t access a certain area because you’ll die from the water pressure if you go that deep without the right equipment. Or you can’t create this part you need because you haven’t discovered a certain resource yet, or you haven’t discovered the blueprint yet.

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Closely related to the progression itself is how you actually figure out the way to progress. In Subnautica, there is no map. It’s up to you familiarize yourself with the world around you. This is helped in part by the ability to place beacons throughout the world; these beacons and the crashed hull of the Aurora become your only true points of reference. The game balances out this feeling of being lost with some narrative direction in the form of radio broadcasts that will point you to specific points of interest.

Speaking of the narrative, the game does one of the best jobs I’ve seen yet of incorporating an engaging story into a free, open-world style design. Subnautica successfully hits that very difficult balance that Metroidvania games often strive for of letting you discover where to go next on your own while at the same time giving you enough direction that you don’t get frustrated. I highly recommend going into the game without looking up anything about it more than a review like this, and not using a guide as much as you can without stopping playing the game altogether. A large part of the joy of the game comes from discovering the amazing secrets Subnautica offers as well as diving deeper into its excellent sci-fi narrative. Very solid voice acting and interesting lore buoy the story into a fundamental aspect of the game, and the game’s finale wraps things up very satisfyingly. Obviously,  I will not be spoiling any part of the story – that’s up to you to find out!

Now to touch on one of the most important parts of Subnautica: fear. In many ways, Subnautica is a horror game. There be monsters in the deep, and even up until the very ending of the game, you as the player are very vulnerable to becoming dinner for one of them. One of the most unique aspects of the game is that it never gives you any true offensive weapon. The best gadgets you acquire are primarily designed for avoiding or running away from the baddies. And if you’re caught in the open ocean with one of the larger creatures… you may die very quickly.

One of the central reasons the progression in Subnautica is so satisfying is the risk/reward scale that this element of fear and vulnerability create. The earlier biomes in the game are relatively safe, often devoid of the most aggressive creatures. The later biomes, the ones with the best resources and most critical blueprints, often feature many aggressive creatures that do their best to ruin your day. And as you might surmise, being underwater amps up the fear level… especially at night. Lord, I hate nighttime in this game.

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Even with the best equipment, that feeling of vulnerability still remains. This makes going to the later biomes a high risk/high reward proposition – adding to the intensity. This also propels you to continually craft better upgrades, to give you a better chance against the baddies. There were times when I was actually paralyzed by fear, so much that I refused to go to certain places on the map. Over time though, you will gather the courage to venture forth if you keep pushing on. Just like real life!

The fear aspect constantly keeps the game engaging, and the strong draw of discovering new areas and furthering the story will keep you going through the fear. You’ll also continue to grow your sense of control over the situation the more you play. I know I keep harping on this aspect of progression and fear, but I really think that it’s a core reason the game is so fun. 

In addition to the core game design, Subnautica also excels in both the audio and visual departments. The ocean is freaking gorgeous (especially on the highest settings). Each biome has a unique flair, from booming, life-filled ecosystems of creatures to dark, mysterious trenches. The sights of the ocean will continually draw you in, and deeper. In terms of audio design, they killed it. Sounds in the ocean make you feel like you are underwater, monster screams are bloodcurdling, and the music really sets the mood – whether that’s upbeat in the safer areas or dark and foreboding in other areas.

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For those who are not big fans of survival or crafting games (like MinecraftARK), the resource collection and meter-maintenance may be the least enjoyable parts of the game. In the early game, it can be a bit of a grind to continually keep your meters up as well as collect enough resources to continue. Personally, I like but don’t love most survival games, and I didn’t have much of an issue with Subnautica’s survival mechanics. Thankfully, as you progress through the game, these mechanics become easier to manage – another satisfying aspect of the game design.

In my playthrough of the game, I did experience occasional bugs and glitches (the release version was definitely more stable than the earlier beta version I had played however). Visually, even on a relatively powerful PC there is quite a bit of pop-in and some stuttering. This is more pronounced if you are moving quickly through the ocean and the game has less time to load.

There were also occasions where some physics were wonky or creatures sometimes got into places they shouldn’t be (i.e., fish swimming indoors). The more major issues were the couple of times I fell through the floor of the ocean and continually fell through blackness indefinitely. Which was absolutely terrifying. I save frequently so I didn’t lose much progress but it was obviously a nuisance. All that being said, the stability of the game today is much better than it was in the beta, and the bugs I came across did not significantly impact my enjoyment of the game.

Prepare for a long ride (dive?) with Subnautica. I invested 80 hours into the game before I completed the story, and I have not even visited every biome. If you just focus on the story, it may be quicker, but a lot of the fun comes from exploring, so I wouldn’t recommend rushing through it too much.

Another quick note – I played equally using a mouse and keyboard and also with a controller through my steam link. Controllers are well supported, so if you like playing games on the couch like me, Subnautica is good for that.

Conclusion

All in all, Subnautica is a unique adventure with an interesting story and wonderful feeling of progression. The beautiful environments and intense moments will keep you playing. I recognize a subset of gamers may not prefer the style of game where much of the progression is left up to your own initiative and exploration, and I can respect that. But I believe Subnautica offers an expanse of secrets and fun for everybody that results in one of the best games of 2018. Enjoy the mysterious waters of Planet 4546B!

Verdict

Superb

  • Pros
  • Enticing exploration and discovery loop
  • Fascinating world design – at times beautiful, at times alien, and at other times, ominous
  • Immersive underwater experience, from an audio, visual, and gameplay perspective
  • Audio design is fantastic
  • Surprisingly interesting story and lore to be discovered
  • Doesn’t hold your hand; progression is satisfyingly user-driven
  • Extremely tense atmosphere at moments
  • Cons
  • One particularly egregious fetch quest near the end
  • Can be pretty buggy
  • Moderate performance issues
  • Preference-dependent
  • F****ING TERRIFYING at times
  • Survival game
  • No combat
  • Not a lot of explicit guidance on what to do next

Thanks for reading!

– Brandon

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