Hurled from a burning starship dropping out of orbit, the opening minutes of Subnautica are tense to say the least. Lost in the waters of an unexplored planet, the only option is to try to stay alive and hope rescue is on its way.
Your survival in the vast oceans of Planet 4546B depends almost entirely on crafting and repurposing the local fauna and flora. Using the fabricator aboard your escape pod, materials scavenged from the seabed can quickly be transformed into O2 tanks, diving fins and a handy survival knife to help keep the ferocious wildlife at bay.
With a multitude of crafting opportunities as well as your vital signs to keep on top of, the personal digital assistant becomes not only a useful handbook but the key to survival. Each tab holds key information that eases the difficulty of surviving in hell’s aquarium. Key item blueprints and their individual components are listed amongst its pages, preventing constant backtracking to the escape pod to remind yourself which material you need to be searching for.
The PDA log tab updates automatically as you pick up data signals, often being desperate pleas for help over the radio from other survivors and notifications about the state of the watery world around you. In moments of confusion your PDA also acts as a reminder of what to do or where to go next as the beacon manager shows the various signals of interest scattered around you. Follow these signals and you may stumble across useful information, unique stories and maybe even lifesaving blueprints. As you become more adept in survival you can divert your attention away from scrounging for materials and spend more time crafting bases, underwater vehicles, and advanced scientific equipment to become more at home in the water. With better equipment you’re able to explore even the inkiest depths of the sea, and keep breathing underwater for much longer.
Amidst harvesting food and water supplies you must also keep an eye out for the dangers of this unexplored planet. Subnautica exhibits horror elements with its fearsome ensemble of deep sea dwelling leviathans and large open expanses of water where the ocean floor is miles below, hidden in the depths. This first person survival game plays on the fear of the unknown to create suspense, whether that be exploring a complicated cave system while your oxygen tank slowly depletes or catching glimpses of strange shapes swirling in the water deep below. The atmosphere Subnautica creates is wonderfully unnerving.
With such a vast underwater world Subnautica boasts a diverse number of biospheres each with unique attributes and environments. The surface of the planet is an endless plane of shimmering water with nothing but the wreck of your sinking starship as a landmark in the distance. But break the surface and various living, breathing ecosystems dwell below. Beautiful coral reefs are populated by schools of colourful fish and peppered with vibrant floral structures. Kelp forests bloom to impressive heights and are home to hungry fish while, out in open water, even bigger threats prowl.
The incredible level of diversity on Planet 4546B means that biomes overlap and swimming for even a short amount of time will see you travel between these unique environments. Unfortunately, the game’s developing biomes will suddenly pop-up on PS4 rather than slowly emerge from the shadows as you approach. Alongside this there’s occasionally dramatic slowdown when surfacing from the deep which, in severe cases, completely freezes the game for a few moments, shattering the immersion.
However, Subnautica’s incredibly engrossing soundtrack more than makes up for this. Once underwater sound design becomes muffled and calls of colossal beasts echo through the currents around you, creating an uneasy tension as you try to pinpoint the direction of danger. To accompany this a constant audio soundtrack evolves as you move between each underwater landscape. Calm, melodic notes accompany peaceful reefs but, in a heartbeat, they can transform into powerful scores as you move closer to an abyss or an eerie cave entrance. A culmination of all these aspects results in an intricate spectrum of relaxation and terror which can tip to one side unpredictably at any moment.
Subnautica is a perfect example an open world survival game that doesn’t rely on action, horror or combat elements to excite. Whilst these classic gaming features are involved to an extent, they take a back seat compared to the story, crafting and surviving elements. And this is what sets Subnautica apart from other survival experiences out there. Don’t let this be the one that got away.
Version tested: PS4
Also available for PC & Xbox One