As a genre, survival games can be repetitive and uninspired. Many of them follow the same generic formula of gathering resources, building a base, and making sure you have enough food to survive. Most of these games have no end goal, they just kind of peter out after a while. Despite not being a fan of the genre, Subnautica caught my attention because it was different. The setting, story, and ultimate goal make it a survival game that stands out among its peers. With a higher emphasis on exploration and discovery as opposed to resource collection, Subnautica felt right up my alley.
As the giant spacefaring vessel Aurora plummets towards an unnamed ocean planet, life pods are jettisoned into the open waters with the few survivors of the crash. You begin your journey in one of these life pods. Equipped with some basic survival necessities like a couple days’ worth of food and water, you realize that you are going to need to take a dive into the alien waters to have any chance at survival.
As you dip your toes into the shallow waters around your life pod, you can start collecting resources. Catching fish to be turned into sustainment, and gathering minerals and other natural resources to start crafting new items. In the beginning hours of Subnautica, you cannot stray far from the water’s surface. With limited oxygen you need to frequently swim back to the surface to breathe. To travel farther and dive deeper you are going to need to craft some new equipment.
Like any survival game, Subnautica has a rather nebulous tech tree. While there is no defined path of equipment and upgrades that needs to be strictly followed, you will find it hard to progress until you craft the necessary upgrades. For example, to dive deeper you are going to want to get faster swimming fins and an oxygen tank. In the deeper waters you will find resources to craft vehicles that let you dive even deeper. And from there you can discover upgrades that can let you dive even deeper still. There is a defined gameplay loop of collecting resources to build new technology which in turn lets you go deeper to collect new resources that lets you build newer technology.
This is all pretty standard for a survival game so far, but Subnautica deviates from its peers in a few ways. The first being that the world is not procedurally generated. The world is predefined, and there is nothing to guide you but your own navigation skills. There is no map that shows you all the biomes, you have to use your compass and some landmarks to remember where you are. Beacons can be placed that make navigation simpler, and the giant crashed ship Aurora serves as an obvious visual anchor of where you are at all times. I liked the decision to leave exploration and discovery to the player’s own ingenuity instead of there being a map that you need to unveil. It cements the fact that you are on an alien planet, with nothing but your own resourcefulness to guide you.
The most important aspect that makes Subnautica stand out is its story. Most survival games are just about surviving, upgrading your gear, and building a base. You just play until you get bored. Subnautica has all those things, but you always have the ultimate goal of leaving the planet. You begin getting messages on your life pod’s radio from other life pods. This brilliantly nudges the player forwards to discover new biomes and technologies. You may be apprehensive at first to stray far from the safe shallow water near your life pod, but you will want to know what happened to the other survivors.
Eventually, your curiosity will be what drives you to delve into the deep, dark, and terrifying ocean. You need to know what happened to the Aurora, and the alien structures that you find will certainly pique your interest. I found that the story of Subnautica was a decent sci-fi tale. It does a phenomenal job at always leaving breadcrumbs for you to discover and make you want to learn more about the world and its secrets. Truthfully, I would’ve quit Subnautica fairly early on if it didn’t appeal to my sense of exploration and discovery.
Aside from the story, the other strong aspect of Subnautica is how genuinely terrifying it is. It’s not like a conventional horror game with grotesque monsters. You must contend with the flora and fauna of the world, some of which are hostile, and some of which are gargantuan. But these creatures don’t exist just to chase you down and kill you like something out of Resident Evil, they have habitats that they happily exist in regardless of your interference. There is no point in battling these beasts, you simple avoid them or use tools to inhibit them long enough for you to get away.
The brand of terror in Subnautica is one that exists almost entirely within the player’s mind. Primal fears like the fear of the dark, fear of the ocean, and fear of the unknown are constantly triggered. You cannot see 360 degrees around you, so there is a constant fear that some predator is lurking just behind you. Traversing into dark waters is always terrifying, you never know what is lurking there. There’s a magic to how unsettling and petrifying Subnautica can be despite not being a horror game at all.
Subautica has its fair share of issues, many of which are common for the survival game genre. Since the game has a tech tree and obvious upgrade paths, it can occasionally be frustrating to get stuck with absolutely no idea of how to acquire the next upgrade or what it even is. You need blueprints to build most new pieces of equipment, and finding these blueprints can be like searching for a needle in a haystack.
For example, one of the most obvious objectives the player has is to board the Aurora and scavenge it. But you need a laser cutter to open many of the sealed doors. It took me ages to find the necessary blueprints to build the laser cutter. They are often found in wreckages scattered on the ocean floor, but it is all too easy to glance over the blueprint while scavenging or miss the wreckage all together. This happened to me numerous times throughout the game, and it was immensely frustrating to aimlessly scour the entire ocean for wreckages that may or may not contain the blueprint I needed.
The worst example I can think of was when I had all but completed the game, I still had not unlocked the giant submarine vehicle. I never came across the necessary blueprints. This was doubly aggravating because I needed to build the submarine to finish the final piece of my spaceship. I spent hours exploring every inch of the world for that blueprint, for no reason other than to build a submarine that I didn’t even really need. I already completed the story; I was mere moments away from blasting off the planet forever.
Additionally, Subnautica also has the classic issue of tedious resource collection that many survival games have. Towards the end of the game in particular the escape rocket requires a ton of resources. All of which the player has likely already collected plenty of times. I guess it serves as a final victory lap as you acquire the copious amounts of titanium and copper necessary to blast off, but by that time in the game I felt like I had already proven my mastery of the ocean.
The most objective flaw of Subnautica is the overwhelming number of technical issues. Although many of the game’s flaws have been getting patched through the years, its hard to ignore how buggy it was on launch and how it still is poorly optimized. The two big issues in particular are the framerate and the draw distance. While the framerate has improved over the years, there are still hiccups. But the more frustrating issue is the draw distance. In a game where exploration is the main mechanic, I should be able to see what is 50 meters in front of me.
This is what leads to the player missing many important wreckages or other landmarks. They swim around a biome, thinking they’ve fully explored it, but some pieces just hadn’t rendered. In many areas of the game, it makes sense that visibility is low. In dark zones or dusty terrain it makes sense to have obscured vision, but in the open ocean I should be able to see more than a few dozen meters in front of me.
Overall, Subnautica is the best survival game that I’ve played. It’s unique setting, sci-fi story, and actual tangible progression makes it more appealing to me than most other survival games. The perhaps unintentional terror and fear that it strikes into the player is something that cannot be forgotten. Nothing gives you chills more than when entering a new biome and you get warned that there are multiple hostile leviathan creature lurking about. All that being said, it still has many of the tedious aspects that plague survival games. It is for these reasons I give Subnautica a 7.5/10. The ocean may seem inhospitable, but I’m sure most people will quickly grow fond of the watery planet that you call home in Subnautica.