Subnautica Review

A brilliant exploration game

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Written by Josh Humphriss

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Posted: 27 Feb, 2023

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Modified: 28 Feb, 2023

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208 views

Subnautica

An exploration survival game underpinned by a decent story

15 Outstanding
Rank: #10
Tech Score: -3
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40 hours

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November 2020

Introduction

Subnautica begins as you crash your ship onto an alien planet, being given a massive world to explore. You can find upgrades, build a base and progress deeper until you discover what's happened on the planet and how you can escape. The exploration is brilliant, the graphics are stylish and it was always fun to play.

A Survival Game?

Subnautica is often described as a survival game, and while it is fundamentally a survival game, the game is so much more. Personally, I think the survival elements are one of the weakest aspects of the game. While, according to the story, you are trying desperately to survive on an alien planet, in reality surviving is trivial. This is fundamentally an exploration-driven game, and the survival elements can get in the way.

For example, like most survival games, you have to eat food and drink water. However, this mostly just meant I had to occasionally swim around left-clicking on fish until I was full. I think the developers had decided they were making a survival game, and not properly considered whether these survival aspects would augment the core experience, or detract from it. I think that it has done the latter. That said, it wasn't frustrating. Just a mild annoyance that could've easily been left out.

The base-building in the game was fine. You have a few different types of rooms and base pieces to choose from, and various different things to put inside of it. I didn't engage with the base building that much, although if you do then you will manage to build some cool bases, albeit somewhat limited by the base pieces available.

The World

The highlight of this game is without a doubt the exploration. The world is simply beautiful. Without spoiling anything, all of the biomes look and feel unique and were a joy to explore.

The size of the world is amazing, stretching out for a long way in each direction with many interesting biomes and big open spaces, as well as an extensive underground cave network.

The graphics are also surprisingly excellent. The world is colourful and full of style. I think the pictures speak for themselves.

Where's the map?

If you're looking for a game where you will be told exactly what to do in the corner of your screen, all of the time, then you will be thoroughly disappointed. The best part of Subnautica is how organic the exploration is, how the game doesn't tell you what to do. As you start, you're not really told what you need to do. I remember reading the instructions in the PDA and they were very unhelpful. However, this doesn't mean that the game is confusing. You can click on the fabricator and it will show you various recipes that you can make. The game doesn't need to tell you that you should make a survival knife! That's just obvious! This leads to an experience where you are not told what to do, and instead the game will leave various hints, hoping that you will discover things for yourself.

Deeper and Deeper...

The underwater environment acts as such a brilliant setting for an exploration game. In the game, you only have a limited amount of oxygen, which limits how deep you can explore. However, as you progress, you will gain better oxygen tanks and also vehicles which allow you to explore even deeper. This is just so natural as a way of restricting progression without feeling like the game is deliberately limiting the player. And as with the previous point, the game doesn't need to tell you to explore deeper! Right from the start the player wants to go as deep as they can, which is ultimately what progresses the story.

Story

While the story itself isn't outstanding, as with other similar games it's the way it's presented that matters. The main premise is that you're trying to get off the planet - an objective the game never tells you, but again, it's pretty obvious. Moments of the story are fed slowly to the player as you gradually gain upgrades and manage to explore more of the map, and go deeper. The story is very well-paced and interesting. As the story moments are infrequent, I always found I was paying very close attention whenever I did notice anything that looked interesting, as I really wanted to discover more about the world. The ending is interesting and the game maintains great pacing right up until the very end of the credits.

Horror

The most surprising aspect of this game was definitely how it is absolutely terrifying. Don't let this put you off playing it, but there were genuinely times when I felt I might not continue as it was so scary. Even as I booted up the game again to gather screenshots for this review, I was frequently in a state of wonder and terror at the world, despite having already finished the game. I could write a whole article about how Subnautica handles terror, but there are some key factors:

In reality, nothing really does much damage, but the game manages to masterfully instill fear in the player such that you don't ever really find out. Even though I have finished the game, and know that enemies don't do much damage, I still found myself absolutely terrifying when exploring the deepest depths of the ocean. This ultimately leads to an experience where you truly feel like you are on an alien planet on which you do not belong.

Soundtrack

The soundtrack is excellent. Most of the scary moments would not have been nearly as scary if it wasn't for the soundtrack. Also, many of the songs are great on their own and I do listen to occasionally. Simon Chylinski did a great job with this one, and it definitely improves the experience.

Performance & Bugs

Subnautica has always been a game with quite a few bugs and performance issues. The pop-in is particularly bad, but there were other issues that occasionally got in the way of my experience. However, they have recently released a patch which should address many issues, so I would suggest looking into it if this matters to you.

Conclusion

Overall, Subnautica is a brilliant game that is well-worth picking up. While the survival elements are good, this game is so much more than a survival game, so don't skip this game if you dislike survival games. The exploration is so well done, perfectly complimented by an underwater setting. The world is interesting and has a great story, and the game was always a joy to play, even if it was sometimes mildly terrifying.

What to know before jumping in

1. Avoid Spoilers

As this is a game about exploration, you will ruin your enjoyment of the game by looking things up. It's really important to go into this one blind.

2. A bit of wiki use is ok

That said, if you've really explored everything and you're still missing something specific, a quick trip to the wiki can be a good idea. However, be careful! Even better, ask a friend who's already played the game to take a look for you.

2. Just Explore!

You never know what you'll find... (also, if you're going deeper then that's a really good sign).