Do you suffer from thalassophobia? If so, it might be best if you avoid playing Subnautica. Thalassophobia means a ‘compulsive fear of the sea and any deep, dark body of water’. Barring a few rare dry spots, you’ll have to get used to swimming around in leagues of blue sea if you want to survive in the terrifying world of Subnautica. Even if you don’t suffer from thalassophobia, it’s hard not to feel a little scared when you can’t even see the seabed below you and a horrifying sound emitted from a large far away creature echoes through the waves. At least you hope it’s far away.
The game also happens to play out on an alien planet, so you’re going to come across far more terrifying things than a great white shark. Plus, for the most part, the only thing you can do when you come across the monsters that lurk in the seas is swim away as fast as you can. But you’ll soon find that you have to return to the same spot if you ever want to succeed in surviving the world of Subnautica.
Like any game in the survival genre, you can’t just sit in a nice little area and grow food to survive until you get old and die. Sure, you can get to the point where you have a nice little self-sustaining base, but getting there is going to take a lot of exploring and facing whatever else is out there in this alien ecosystem. Scared to go exploring further than your starting area? You’ll eventually die of starvation or thirst. Survival games aren’t mean to be a walk in the park, and Subnautica is definitely not about to buck the trend.
You start out having crash-landed on an alien planet (with the catchy name of 4546B) that’s mostly covered in a huge ocean. You were part of the crew of a giant spaceship known as the Aurora and, as far as you know, you’re the only survivor. After putting out the fire in your escape pod, you’ll climb out of the hatch to be confronted with the sight of the half-submerged Aurora that’s currently blazing away on fire. If you’re like me, your first impulse is to swim straight towards the ship to see if anyone else survived, or at least find stocks of food, water and anything else you need to survive. If you’re like me you’ll also pretty much immediately die a painful death because you were in no way prepared to go anywhere near the ship.
The first task is to ensure that you can survive longer than a day (or, in my case, 10 minutes). Sitting in the bottom left of your HUD are health, hunger and thirst metres that start to tick down towards zero and, obviously, death. Thankfully, your escape pod is equipped with a few bottles of water and packets of food to get you started. You’ll also find a first aid kit fabricator that pops out a new first aid kit every 15 minutes or so. You’ll quickly find the provided food and water aren’t going to last long, so it’s up to you to use the other on-board fabricator to make more food and water – as well as plenty of other resources and equipment – by using the raw resources that can be found in the waters around you.
The starting area is relatively safe, and you won’t have much trouble just swimming around and taking in its beauty. Schools of fish dart around in front of you, while colourful coral and strange alien plants litter the seabed. As you swim further out you’ll find other unique biomes that draw you in with their wonderful and strange new sights. Until you’re horribly killed because, again, you weren’t prepared to go that far out.
Before you explore the limitless depths of this ocean world, you’re going to want to properly equip yourself for the journey. Fish can be caught and cooked in the fabricator, while a particular fish known as a ‘bladder fish’ can be turned into a bottle of water to keep you from dying of thirst. Later on, you’ll be able to gather salt and coral to make bleach that can then be turned into disinfected water, so you won’t have to spend ages trying to find a pesky ‘bladder fish’.
After you’ve staved off hunger and thirst for a while, you’ll want to concentrate on ensuring you can stay underwater for longer periods. You can do this by crafting and equipping an oxygen tank, which can be also be upgraded in the future. Just be aware that the more oxygen you equip, the slower you swim, so it’s always a trade-off between how long you want to stay underwater and how fast you want to be able to swim away from the nasty things that will inevitably try to eat your face. You’ll find yourself swimming to the surface quite often in the early hours, so you always need to keep an eye on how much oxygen you have left and how long it will take you to reach the surface before you start to drown. Crafting flippers will increase your swimming speed, and further down the line, you’ll be able to craft the Seaglide (a contraption you hold that lets you speed through the water) before ultimately being able to pilot your own one-man submarine.
All your upgrades, equipment and other resources are created using the crafting system. While some things can be made by using the resources found around you, others need various things to first be crafted before you can use these things to create or operate the equipment you need. The Seaglide, for example, requires you to keep crafting batteries so that you can continue to operate it. Crafting uses blueprints as recipes, but they won’t all be available to you from the start. You’ll have to find other blueprints by exploring the environment, while some blueprints are only unlocked when the story dictates you need them.
Speaking of the story, it’s slowly revealed to you as you progress through the days of the game. More often than not though, the next part of the story won’t unlock until you’ve reached a certain area or crafted a certain piece of equipment. Once the radio in your escape pod is repaired you’ll also start picking up distress signals from other pods that are then marked on your map. I won’t ruin what’s in store for you, but the voice acting on each of the radio messages is decent and the story gets stranger with every beat.
Once you get through the initial stages of simply trying to survive, you’ll eventually be exploring deep caverns and new biomes, while also gathering enough resources to build an impressive modular base so that you can finally leave the confines of your escape pod. When I finally managed to approach the Aurora, I was swimming in the murky sea around the back of the ship and suddenly felt that I wasn’t alone. Sure enough, I turned around to be confronted with a giant snake-like sea creature that was staring straight at me. It’s safe to say that I got the hell out of there. Swimming away is always the best choice, and the developers have made it so there are no lethal weapons in the game, at least when it comes to their effects on the larger foes you’ll face. You can use things to try and get creatures to back off a bit, but swimming away is mostly the best option. It’s refreshing to play a game that lets you figure out a way past things without simply blasting them to bits.
While the environment and the accompanying audio are incredibly immersive, the game does suffer from a few issues that drag you out of your immersion. I had instances where the game suddenly got quite laggy and suffered from pop-in, especially if you’re using one of the faster vehicles over swimming. A few visual glitches such as a random part of the sea being on fire and birds sitting in thin air also popped up, but I thankfully didn’t come across anything game breaking.
Subnautica is a game that’s all about surprises; from the increasingly intriguing story to the random fish that suddenly explodes in front of your face. There’s a whole lot of ocean out there to explore, and doing so is always a joy, albeit a terrifying one. Simply surviving can sometimes be a chore, but at least you always feel like you’re making progress towards discovering what lies deep beyond the ocean floor.