Review: Subnautica

[Warning: Minor spoilers below. But also, this is a review of Subnautica, which has been out for a while, and not Subnautica Below Zero which just came out because I am a mom and I am very behind on my gaming library.]

Subnautica is everything I love in a game. Survival, crafting, resource management, open-world. Seriously. I live for these games. And while Subnautica checks all the boxes, it also checks one box that I could live without: underwater exploration. I have a touch of thalassophobia (fear of the ocean/deep water), which made me excited and scared to try out this game.

No. Just, no.

As long as I can remember I’ve felt nervous in large bodies of water when I can’t see the bottom. I first discovered that my fear also extended to video games way back in 1996, with the help of Super Mario 64 and the Jolly Roger Bay. Everything was fine there in the shallow water. Just me and some clams chomping on coins, no big deal… until I hit that ledge. A straight drop down, deeper and deeper. I gritted my teeth and navigated that pudgy plumber into the depths. Then, from the shadowy pixelated depths, the big bug eye and sharp white teeth of Unagi appeared. He emerged and started slithering around in the water. I convulsed and dry heaves took over my body.

Cut to 23 years later. In Subnautica, Mario is replaced with a normal-proportioned adult, and Unagi has become the leviathans (yes, leviathans, as in more than one). I joke, but although the worlds are very different, the feelings I have now playing this game are so similar to the ones I felt as a child playing Super Mario 64 for the first time. The blend of awe and terror and the sense of accomplishment for conquering a fear, even in a pretend world, keep me diving back in day after day.

Subnautica was developed and published by Unknown Worlds Entertainment, previously known for Natural Selection, the Half-Life mod-turned-game. Subnautica was available in early access for PC way back in 2014, but my current processor struggles to run Minesweeper. I waited patiently and finally, in December 2018, the full release was available on Xbox One and PS4. I see Subnautica on sale frequently on Steam, so if you’re patient, you can snag a good deal. Patience is not one of my virtues. I was so excited to dive in that I booted up my PlayStation and paid full price, and it was worth every penny.

I found myself a lonely survivor of a spaceship crash on a distant ocean planet. The game begins in the safe shallows, and I floated around with some odd-looking fish. My nerves were quickly soothed by the calm waves and colorful fish and coral. I was immersed in an ocean world that was detailed, vast, and gorgeous.

But my aquatic wonderland quickly turned to a nightmare as I encountered ledges leading down into murky waters, and predators that wanted to bite my face. After about 20 hours of playing, and being forced to go deeper, I found that I had become comfortable in those early game areas. Even though there were predators, I knew what to expect and how to avoid them. Plus, I’d amassed quite a collection of materials to help me stay healthy and healed.

I opted for Survival mode, where I had to keep fed, hydrated, and healthy. Oh, and I had to remember to breathe. While that sounds obvious, there were quite a few times in the early game where I realized I had gone down too low and there was no way I’d make it back up to the surface in time for that life-saving breath.

This is fine. I’m sure these fish are just being friendly…

Building a home base was relatively simple and insanely comforting. I spent hours deviating from the main story line to hunt for wreckage, scan new technology, and build all exciting and sometimes useless structures in my base. Base building comes with little instruction, and I found some of the crafting elements to be a tad confusing. At first, I tried to build at sea-level and wound up with waves crashing in the interior of my base. You can build above or below water, but my advice would be to avoid going right down the middle. This first base was a glorified storage unit, 2 x-shaped components with lockers inside to hold the product of my hording. There’s a fair amount of freedom in base building. For example, lockers and cabinets can go on pretty much any wall, or even in the middle of a hallway if you want. But there are some restrictions too. I wanted desperately for my home base to weave through a natural arch, but no matter how much space there seemed to be, the game was convinced that none of the hallway pieces would fit, and I was forced to move. There’s no penalty for deconstructing structures- you get back the exact same materials you put in- which was very handy when I made mistakes. I got much better at building, but I did still have trouble sometimes. I never got vertical components to work And, I was frequently confused by structures that looked like they weren’t going to connect to my existing base (a big space between them and my other rooms), only to try building them to find that suddenly a little hallway appeared and they were connected. Don’t be afraid to try things. You can always deconstruct them and move as needed. Which is what I had to do to my little starter base early on. Turns out, where you start the game is probably not the best location. You’ll probably want to go a bit lower in the water, especially since that’s where the resources are found.

I built my permanent base by a pod of gasopods, a gasopod pod, with a gorgeous cavern system in the background, only to discover I was about 300 meters from an aggressive leviathan. Luckily their range for patrolling is relatively small, so she never came close. I ended up building a second structure that pushed out into the Dunes so I could watch her swimming in circles. It was actually peaceful from inside – the difference between swimming with sharks and watching them from the other side of a glass wall. While the leviathan didn’t end up being a problem for my home base, the gasopods kept getting scared by something (I don’t even know what) and releasing their “gas pods” which damaged my base’s hull integrity. More than once, I returned home to find my base flooded. A minor annoyance for a great view.

The game’s soundtrack was really well done too. The music regularly sent chills up my spine. One transition in particular always sent me swimming for cover. You’ll know it when you hear it. I also couldn’t tell the difference between the warning growls of the aggressive creatures and the friendlier gasopods and reef leviathans, which caused a lot of unnecessary stress. The reason I couldn’t tell them apart was probably because I never turned the volume above a whisper. Can we pretend it was because my kid was sleeping nearby and not because I was too scared? Ha.

In Super Mario 64, you can take a break. When you leave those Course 3 levels, you slide down an icy mountain or jump around a haunted house. In Subnautica, there are no breaks. I was reading comments on Steam early in my playthrough, and I saw a piece of advice that really shaped my experience. If you’re stuck and don’t know what to do next, there’s only one option: Go deeper.

As the story unfolded, I found myself with a smug feeling of accomplishment. I won’t give away too much, only to say there were definitely people who made it out of our sinking spaceship only to fall victim to the horrors of the deep. I was proud of myself for surviving where others had failed, until I remembered that in Survival mode, death is followed by a loss of a few items and a reset, rather than permanent game-over. By the time I was hearing the stories of other people, I had died at least 10 times. I would even save sometimes, and then just swim off into the Void. It’s worth doing at least once when you play.

I experienced moments of genuine terror. For example, I ventured out into the Dunes in a ridiculous display of moxie. The area is teeming with leviathans and aggressive predators, and I pretty much expected to get eaten. Instead, I stumbled upon a huge wreck full of new technology to scan, and I was suddenly desperate to get back home and save. As my oxygen was running out and I was racing back to my submersible, I was grabbed and the screen went blurry. It wasn’t a hypnotic Mesmer or a nearby leviathan that had me. I’ll avoid spoilers, but I will tell you that I almost spoiled my pants. Docking back at base after that was an indescribably wonderful feeling.

There was also the time I got lost in the aptly-named Lost River and wound up stuck next to a monstrous leviathan in what felt like a very narrow cave. Only after escaping and finding the surface 10 minutes later did I realize that every muscle in my body had been clenched. I’m pretty sure I’ve done more kegels involuntarily while playing Subnautica than I have intentionally since giving birth.

I’m so proud of myself when I go over a ledge, and then terribly angry at the game when my bravery is reward with a face-full of mandibles and teeth shaking my submersible.

As much as I love the game, I have a few criticisms. There are times when the game runs slow and objects or enemies suddenly rendering on top of me. Also, you only have one save slot (at least on the PS4), so you overwrite the previous save every time, and you can’t have a back-up. The game doesn’t have an autosave feature, which is both good and bad. There were times I’d die and realized I hadn’t saved in 20 minutes (ouch). But, there were also times where the game bugged and I was thankful it didn’t autosave when I exited. In one particularly hairy moment near the end of the game, I encountered a bug that sent me dropping thousands of meters into black darkness. I was terrified my game was permanently bugged out, and I’d never be able to finish. I had to restart three times before it finally worked.

I’m not sure how long I’ve actually played. My current playthrough actually says 3 days and 2 hours but I left it running once while I put my kid down for a nap, which is actually a 35-step process involving songs and dancing and a lot of crying (me and her). Subnautica has also been a great game to play with my kid nearby, because her 1-year-old brain doesn’t seem to recognize how scary it is. She loves talking to the animals she sees on the screen. Gasopods are turtles to her. There are other creatures that she thinks are octopuses, and she goes crazy for the fish. Playing in front of her also helps me, because I try not to overreact when I’m scared. I think about how much she’s enjoying watching me.

Subnautica is a beautiful game with a powerful but subtle conclusion about the way we interact with the world around us. Playing helped with my thalassophobia in some ways, made my thalassophobia worse in others, and gave me a serious butt work-out. Clench, release, repeat.

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