I like the concept of survival games, but very rarely appreciate them in practice. The reason is simple: survival is a lot of work, and the more realistically a game tries to capture the survival experience, the more it feels like work. I love the idea of exploring and foraging to build my own home and goods, but too often that idea gets crowded out by tedium. What makes Subnautica so remarkable is that, more than any other survival game, it turns the struggle into actual fun. Every aspect of the game encourages you to discover and build at your pace, without ever forcing you into a cycle of drudgery.
You are the lone survivor of the Aurora, a deep-space vessel which crash-landed on a vast, unexplored alien world. Your new home also happens to be an ocean planet, forcing you to find ways to explore and survive beneath the waves. Starting from your humble lifepod in the pleasant shallows, you’ll descend into kelp forests, fungal caverns, ominous chasms, and stranger places still in search of resources to help you get by. As you piece together parts from the Aurora to make new equipment and shelter, you’ll discover an ancient secret lurking in the depths of the planet. Getting back to civilization will prove to be more complicated than it appears, and your quest will reveal much about the fantastic world you’re stranded on.
There’s a lot to discover about the game, and that much will be apparent from the moment you first dive from your lifepod. The environments of the ocean are vibrant and detailed, rich with strange fishes and exotic plants. Your first encounters in the shallows set the stage for the rest of the game, educating you in what fish are edible, where fresh water comes from, what minerals are useful, and what danger looks like. One of the first tools you can make is a scanner which provides helpful lore about every plant, animal, device, structure, and system you can point it at. You can also just poke at things pretty freely, filling your inventory with all sorts of rocks and eggs and junk that will all eventually have some value to you.
Crafting is the key to progression here, but unlike most survival games most of the tedium has been cut from the system. Your lifepod contains a fabricator pre-loaded with recipes for food, water, tools, vehicles, and the refined materials to make them all. Getting to work requires blessedly little hunting and pecking, as most requirements are an X and a Y where both are perfectly common materials. They tend to appear in logical places as well, at least once you learn how the alien ecology is arranged. More complex gear requires you to scan fragments scattered across the world by the Aurora crash, and hunting down these bits rewards you with new vehicles like a personal submarine and a mech suit, weapons like a gravity gun, and important pieces for your seabase.
Base building is one area where Subnautica shines the brightest. The developers seem to have realized that the number one thing anyone wants to do in the ocean is build things underwater, so they made that aspect of the game both rewarding and easy. Base hallways and chambers are made from small amounts of the most basic minerals on the planet, enabling you to build a sprawling complex within the first hour of the game. More complex rooms like a moonpool for docking your submarine and a scanner room for revealing nearby resources require more complex materials, but they’re never items that take more than a few minutes to pull together. And there’s plenty of furniture to decorate with as well, once you find and scan it from the wreckage scattered about.
There is one hangup in the base building though, and it’s one that gets echoed throughout the game. You have access to hallways for your bases from the start but not the big multipurpose rooms that comprise most of the workable space, and I’m not sure why that is. You have to find and scan one before you can build proper bases, and depending on how quickly you follow the storyline that could take an hour or several hours to do. Subnautica does an effective job for most of its runtime of signposting where you need to go next with distress signals and conspicuous datalog clues, but actually finding things in the vast ocean can still be a pain. Certain features essential to progression are a little too hidden, without any indication you should be searching in their vicinity. I played this game extensively in Early Access but still missed two key locations near the end that I had to look up once I seemingly hit a roadblock.
You’ll run into a few other little annoyances like some wonky vehicle physics and the wildlife occasionally clipping into places it really shouldn’t, but I only mention these issues now so I can stress how much they pale in comparison to the rest of the game. Any frustration I suffered from losing my way or getting my sub stuck on a reef melted away when I descended into a terrifyingly alien cavern for the first time, or build a brand new hundred-foot-long submarine. Subnautica absolutely nails the awe and wonder of surviving in a strange new place, both in the pleasure of discovery and the joy of creation. Finding a new landscape or crevice holds the promise of fantastic creatures to learn about and new building blocks to play with, pushing you ever onward to dive deeper and build better gear.
This magical journey is pinned together by an expert story told entirely through logs and the environment, unraveling the twisted history of the planet and beyond. Once you realize that survival and escape are not your only priorities, you’ll be following two major plot and progression threads to your ultimate goal. One is firmly set in the crafting and collecting that forms the backbone of the game, while the other challenges you to follow a trail of secrets into the very depths of the world. I’ll warn you now that some of these secrets are guarded by absolutely terrifying denizens of the deep, nightmare creatures sprung from minds acutely aware of how horrifying the open waters can be. No matter how big a ship you build, there will always be something bigger for you to encounter, and the sequences at the end of the game are absolutely masterful in how they exploit this discomfort.
If you harbor fears of the ocean this will be a tough one to deal with, but I implore you to challenge yourself because no other game has pulled off the formula this well. Compare it to any other survival game you want to, and you’ll see that the graphics are brighter and more detailed, the sound is richer and more immersive, the story is more gripping, the crafting is more engaging, and the exploration is second to none. Subnautica has set the bar for survival games, turning the work of surviving into such fun that I could hardly wait to scrounge up my next piece of crystal or fragment scan. It’s such an intense joy that even after escaping the planet after 20 full hours, I’m itching to return someday.