Let’s be honest, crash-landing on an alien planet is going to suck. Sure, you might still be alive, which is something, but you’re now surrounded by the unfamiliar, the dangerous, and none of the creature comforts you’ll have had upon your now destroyed space ship.
When it launched into Early Access in October, Stranded: Alien Dawn put you in charge of a group of survivors in just such a scenario. There’s barely been any time to feel sorry for them, because now, two months on, the Dunes and Moons update has arrived as the first major expansion.
Most eye-catching in Dunes and Moons is the new Desertum biome, an arid landscape that tests your survivors in different ways, featuring different flora and fauna to contend with. If you’ve already sunk tens of hours into Stranded: Alien Dawn since its initial Early Access release, then you’ll have new survival strategies to figure out here.
This was my first time going hands on with Stranded: Alien Dawn, and it’s an intriguing take on the survival genre, straddling the divide between single character survival games and broader colony builders. As always, you’ll start off by crash-landing into this setting, your four survivors crawling out of the wreckage of their escape pod as other parts of their ship come blazing out of the sky and smashing into the ground nearby. That helps to provide the basis for your initial shelter, as you tear apart the ruined hulls and fabricate basic metal shelters, grab what’s readily available from nearby plants for bedding and storage spaces, and survive with the heat of a campfire and a dwindling supply of emergency rations.
That will only get you so far. These structures buy you time to learn how to survive off the land, figuring out if and how the Earth-adjacent plant-life can help you. Compared to the original grassland setting, Desertum features large cacti, bulbous plants, spindly trees and squat bushes covering a dusty and rocky landscape. One of the first big tasks is to set your survivors to observe these plants, figuring out what’s useful for what, and opening up the possibility of farming these core resources. A source of food is vital, but so is something cotton-like for making clothes, wood for building structures, and so on.
While they were clearly advanced enough for space travel, the crash effectively sets your survivors back to ground zero in terms of technology. As with researching the surroundings, you’ll also have to construct a workbench where a survivor can puzzle over the basics of building a more permanent home, creating clothing, and so on.
Your control of the group is partially abstracted, so you set tasks and then the AI gets on with them from the list of jobs you’ve made – unless you give direct orders to one particular person. A key thing to consider with the Desertum biome is that it will get very hot during the day and very cold at night. You’ll want to ensure that you adjust the group’s schedule through the day, noting when it’s outside their comfort range and shifting the work, rest, and sleep patterns so they aren’t freezing to death because they got up at dawn, hours away from a liveable temperature – naturally, this is just one factor in keeping them content and happy. Well, as happy as you can be having just crashed on a planet and needing to scrabble around to try and survive!
Alongside the new setting are different moons that act as gameplay modifiers. The Jason Moon increases adversity but balances this with more time to prepare and recover from events, Nyx increases night-time wildlife attacks, while Chaos throws more unpredictable events into the pot. Going hand in hand with the core difficulty modes, from Very Hard and Insane to the new ‘Peace First’ setting that removes animal attacks outright, Stranded: Alien Dawn can already cater to different player preferences and styles of play quite handily.
There’s also a new survivor, Sora Satoh, who’s a dab hand in combat situations and with physical activities. Make sure to hand her your laser pistol as she can fire twice as fast, which dramatically improves your ability to fend off any early attacks by wildlife – once warned that animals are coming, you can send her out early to pre-emptively attack. She’s also very well suited to Desertum thanks to having a much wider tolerance to hot and cold temperatures.
If Haemimont games keeps up the pace with updating Stranded: Alien Dawn, then it will soon flourish into a fully-materialised survival management sim. The Desertum biome shows how each expansion can shake up the gameplay and make clever balance tweaks, the Moons and difficulty settings tailoring the title’s strong foundations to suit your tastes. Stranded: Alien Dawn will be one to watch as it evolves into 2023.