This aquatic survival game is an underwater wonder.
There are certain moments in my gaming past I’d love to somehow wipe from my brain just so I could experience them again, fresh and unspoiled. Plunging into the sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifying, sometimes disorienting aquatic world of Subnautica for the first time is one of those moments. Not since Minecraft have I fallen so easily in love with an open-world survival craft-em-up, and in a lot of ways, including the gripping story, developer Unknown Worlds has done even better.
Subnautica is gripping from the very first moments, as you’re ejected from a disintegrating starship onto a watery alien world. Beyond the relative safety of your life pod, an expansive, diverse range of aquatic biomes brimming with awe and personality awaits. From the shallow, murky kelp forests to the surreal, alien shark-infested expanse of the underwater islands, the surprises never seemed to cease as I pushed to explore further and deeper. Along the way, I discovered the foreboding, Ridley Scott-esque wreck of the ship that brought you here to explore… and a couple other surprising detours I don’t want to spoil.
One of the most unexpected things about Subnautica, in comparison to other games in its genre, is that it’s legitimately terrifying. I don’t mean the tension of possibly losing my inventory when being chased by a shark. I’m talking about the kind of fear I feel when playing Amnesia or Outlast. Drifting in the open water by moonlight, knowing the sea floor may be hundreds of meters below me and safety is nowhere in sight, all while the echoing wails of massive, predatory leviathans resonate from somewhere in the inky black, never failed to make my heart rate rise. Wait – did that last one sound closer? As an absolute masochist when it comes to horror, I found these moments delightfully unsettling.
One of the most unexpected things about Subnautica is that it’s legitimately terrifying.
Subnautica further cements its horror credentials by sometimes making you helpless against enemies. Your survival knife or the industrial drill on the PRAWN exosuit can make short work of some of the smaller hostiles, but the ocean’s apex predators are practically unkillable. Awareness, stealth, and distraction are your best tools for survival in the dangerous depths. Some of my most memorable moments were running my Cyclops submarine on silent while I tried to navigate a passageway without alerting the sea monster patrolling it.
The crafting system is robust, if fairly straightforward: you gather resources from the ocean floor to build expansive, modular seabases and unlock new tools. The major turning points are when you unlock the Seamoth, and later the much larger Cyclops, which allow you to reach deeper biomes without being crushed like a tin can and thus access higher-tier resources. The progression dragged in a couple spots – like when you first get the Seamoth but still can’t access most of the resources needed to upgrade its diving depth. Building a scanning room at my seabase was a big help there.
Positional audio became my best friend in figuring out what types of creatures were around.
All the while, the sense of being submerged is made so much more real by the excellent muted, watery sound effects. Positional audio eventually became my best friend in figuring out what types of creatures were around, and where they were located. Each biome has, in addition to a very strong visual identity, a music track that cements the mood. The pulsing beat of the Blood Kelp Zone told me exactly what I needed to know: mainly that I was going to need to Alt + Tab out and look at pictures of puppies for a while when it was done with me.
On the other hand, my immersion was often disrupted by huge amounts of pop-in and jarring level of detail changes, especially when operating a fast vehicle like the Seamoth. There are no draw-distance sliders in the options, which was frustrating as my PC was able to handle Subnautica’s max settings with a stable framerate. I would have loved to push the boundaries a bit more to try to smooth that out.
When the graphics are fully rendered, though, they’re striking and communicative. The variety of alien life strikes a balance between nods to recognizable sea creatures and alien weirdness that made me want to swim up close to even the tiniest fish and crustaceans you admire the detail. Occasionally, this resulted in me getting a bite taken out of my face – but in general, the shape and sound of a creature tells you what you need to know at a glance. Predators look like predators, with sleek outlines and prominent teeth, while less fearsome fauna tends to reflect its role in the ecosystem with a more welcoming silhouette.
The plot goes as deep as the foreboding depths.
The icing on the cake is that Subnautica actually does a really good job of telling a compelling story around its survival gameplay. It would be unforgivable for me to spoil any of the surprises you’ll discover in the course of simply trying to get enough food and drinkable water to stay breathing. But suffice it to say the plot goes as deep as the foreboding depths, with the complexity and nuance of a great sci-fi film. Each step along the way includes well-written journal entries and audio logs with uncommonly high-quality voice acting.
Perhaps most praiseworthy of all, it doesn’t pull that “Good luck finding the main story!” nonsense so many other open-world survival games are guilty of. Clear map landmarks and a short-wave radio continue to provide the clues throughout to nudge you in the right direction, so you never feel like you absolutely have to go poring over a wiki to figure out what to do next.