Last night I tried out an early access survival game called Subnautica. I bought it for $9.99 in the last Steam sale.

The premise of this game is unlike other survival games in that you play a big part of it underwater. The game begins with you scrambling into a “rescue pod” while your ship blows up around you. (I assume it’s some kind of spaceship.) The rescue pod lands in a big alien ocean and then it’s your job to survive, while your ship looms in the distance, burning and giving off radiation.

You start with something like SCUBA gear, so you dive underwater to locate resource nodes to build things, just like other survival games. Initially you can only stay underwater for about 45 seconds before you have to come back up for air. (The starting area is very shallow so it’s fairly easy to get back to the surface anytime.) You can build bigger air tanks so you can stay underwater for longer periods. In the few hours I played I upgraded my air supply twice and got up to something like 135 seconds, which is a fairly long time, at least in the shallow areas.

You have the standard food, water, and health indicators. Food and water is a bit trickier than other survival games because you have to catch fish and then “craft” the consumables. Catching fish can be a little frustrating because you actually have to swim after the fish and left-click on them to get them into your inventory, and they don’t sit still to make this easy. Once they’re in your inventory you have to swim back to your rescue pod and use the “Fabricator” (a crafting station) to convert them into things you can eat and drink. Catching “bladder fish” allows you to make water bottles to drink from. Other kinds of fish can be cooked up into a tasty meals. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and it can be a bit tedious but it’s at least a different mechanic from every other game.

I haven’t done much with combat because I haven’t yet crafted a knife, so I can only run away from hostile encounters. There are a few fish that launch themselves at you from pods attached to cave walls, and I saw another big, hungry-looking fish swimming around at night, but so far I haven’t encountered anything that outright killed me. Presumably the farther you get from your rescue pod, the more difficult the game gets.

Once you repair the radio in your rescue pod, you get radio signals that give you “quests” to do. The first one I got marked a location to investigate. I haven’t yet seen what happens when you get there because it’s in a location near the wrecked ship that’s inside a radiation zone. Apparently I need to craft a radiation suit before I can go there. (The wrecked ship is deceptively far away, too. It takes a long time to swim there and the water gets very deep and menacing around it.)

There is also a scanning mechanic where you can build a hand scanner and scan the underwater plant life and fish for information. I’m not quite sure what the purpose of this is yet but it’s kind of fun to try to scan fish while they swim around.

The biggest problem I’ve seen so far is–of course–inventory management. Every game ever has problems with inventory management so this shouldn’t be a surprise. You don’t get a lot of space to gather resources, and it quickly becomes apparent that you can’t just grab everything you see and stuff it in your backpack. You can make floating storage boxes but they don’t hold much either.

The second biggest problem is having to return to your rescue pod to craft things. Most survival games you can craft the basic, starting items on the run without the need for a crafting station. Not so in this game. You have to return to the fabricator and work through it’s somewhat tedious interface every time. It’s neat to see it working the first few times, but after that you don’t want to wait through the animations anymore.

I’ve played for only a few hours, but I have to say I’m intrigued by it. I like that they’ve put a different spin on the survival genre, and this seems to be the most evolved of the handful of underwater games I’ve seen. The game is very pretty, and it runs fairly well. It’s more polished than a typical early access game, and it’s obvious that it’s been in development for some time. I don’t know how much depth is here over the long haul, and I have some issues with the inventory management and the fabricator, but at least initially it’s worth checking out for $10.

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