Imagine this: your spaceship crash-lands in the middle of an alien ocean, the only surviving member of the crew is you, your escape pod is on fire, your ship is wrecked and burning in the distance, and you start feeling your hunger and thirst rising. Apart from the debris here and there, the only thing around you is water, as far as the eyes can see. What do you do? There’s just one thing to do, I guess – dive in? Subnautica by Unknown Worlds Entertainment is an open-world (slightly horror) survival adventure that puts you exactly in these shoes, as you struggle to keep yourself healthy, quench your hunger and thirst, all the while exploring the depths for materials you need to craft with.
From the minute you wake up in your pod on planet 4546B, you’re immersed in a world that’s both a delicate flower to look at, and a deadly trap if you’re not careful. Like a strange, glorious animal we’ve never seen before – we’re drawn to exploring it, yet afraid of its potential danger to us. Each second in Subnautica is laden with this feeling of subtle terror at every moving thing, at every sound from the depths (did that sound just seem closer than the previous one?!) while at the same time resplendent with beauty and diversity of its flora and fauna. The fluorescent corals and fish are brilliant with color during the day, but when night comes and the moon rises, the whole atmosphere turns a bit more sinister, your trips out of your base become all the more scary, and tend to be shorter.
In terms of the feeling it evokes while you play, Subnautica expertly treads that fine line between intense fright and deep wonder. Masters of the horror genre, both in games and other media, realize that it’s not jump-scares or scenes of gore that induce the highest emotions of dread – rather, it’s the buildup of tension that you can’t get rid of, that voice in the back of your head asking seemingly innocuous questions that grow ever more frightening the longer they remain unanswered. “Where am I? What’s that thing moving in the distance? Will I ever get out? Is help coming? Or anyone?!” This is where Subnautica thrives, at that edge of comfort, offering intense feelings of unease as you explore its rich and varied world. People that are uncomfortable with being underwater, or looking into the depths, might find Subnautica a rather impossible nut to crack, but maybe it’s exactly these people who would benefit most from this gaming experience, as they are forced to face their fears on the screen, at least.
As for the gameplay, it’s rather simple – don’t die, and figure out a way to get off planet. What this entails is a constant management of oxygen (while you’re underwater), hunger, thirst, and inventory slots. If you’re playing the less strict Casual game mode, you’ll be relieved of hunger and thirst entirely, and if you try the Creative mode, you’ll do away with the story, only engaging in scavenging and crafting to see how far your technological acuity will take you. The real deal with Subnautica, however, comes with the Survival and Hardcore game modes, the latter being the most difficult one, where you only have one life to spare and can’t save the game, and also don’t get “low oxygen” warnings while you’re diving. I wouldn’t recommend this mode to the faint of heart, and gamers should usually stick to the Survival game mode to get the most of this game without getting frustrated or, conversely, finding it too easy in Casual or Creative modes.
So, basically the game revolves around diving for materials (this can include various fish and other inhabitants of the depths, minerals you can get from rocks, debris from your ship, excretions of the plant life, different mushrooms, and much more) and then returning to the relative safety of your base where you can craft various items that can help you better survive and explore the depths, or just provide sustenance and energy for doing so. Some materials are as easy to get as just clicking and obtaining them, whereas others require you to use your head and search extensively, sometimes even completing mini-puzzles before you can score that final ingredient for your next project. Your first dives will be limited in duration to the amount of oxygen you can hold in your lungs, but for subsequent dives, you’ll need an Oxygen tank. In the beginning, you’ll visit places of only a certain depth, but as you progress and manage to build one of the few submarines (the small Seamoth, for example) you’ll be able to go deeper and carry more.
The story of the game is another strong point and is best experienced firsthand. There are plenty of wow moments and developments that I’d rather not spoil for you, so if Subnautica sounds like a game you might enjoy, buy it and see for yourself. Let’s just say that you won’t feel like you’ve thrown the money away, the story is immersive (I love using this word for this review!) and meaningful. Being an open-world game, exploring Subnautica, you might sometimes feel at a loss where to go or what to do next, but the story gently guides you using radio emissions and other subtle clues, so you won’t feel frustrated and confounded while playing.
All in all, if you like maritime exploration and can handle a bit of a thrilling ride that can sometimes get disturbing, Subnautica will be the perfect game for you. You’ll be spending hours upon hours in the mesmerizing biomes of the alien world, meeting (and often running from!) foreign life forms, gathering materials and upgrading your gear so that you can get further, and explore more efficiently and effectively. It is an extraordinary game with an engaging story, excellent gameplay, and enjoyable world.