The bottom of the ocean is the most interesting and also unsettling place our planet has to offer. Whether it’s the encroaching darkness or the fact that we are just not meant to be down there, the mysteries of the deep will almost certainly never be solved. It’s part what made BioShock such a dark delight, but instead of putting you on an elevator for the scenic route, Subnautica from Unknown Worlds makes you work for every single meter of progress.
Originally released on PC, Subnautica adds to the growing line-up of quality survival games currently available on consoles without a dong slider in sight. It’s the same kind of maturely designed and progressively deeper experience that has made the likes of The Long Dark and The Forest feel right at home on console, though it feels unlike any survival game I’ve played — and I’ve played a lot of them.
Water-based levels have sunk even the most beloved of video games in the past and they are typically greeted with a groan whenever they are seemingly obligatorily thrown in — as steadfastly as I will defend Metal Gear Solid 2 against all comers, I would struggle to find much good in its infamous underwater section. Somehow, Unknown Worlds have created a world almost entirely consisting of water that I dove into with glee for hours at a time.
After crash landing on a planet known as 4546B, you are the only survivor from a downed ship called the Aurora which hulks over the landscape (or should that be waterscape) of most of the game’s map. It’s set in the far-flung future, but never beats the player over the head with its lore or background — a throwaway line about humans long ago eating meat establishes everything perfectly and shows some welcome restraint with world-building that too many games are to afraid to try. It also doesn’t hurt that Subnautica’s world is so inviting that you can’t help but want to uncover more information from simply exploring and putting the pieces together organically.
Where Subnautica really excels is in how it handles the feel of swimming and diving, which is lucky as it’s what you’re going to be doing for about 90% of the game. It’s neither too light or too weighty with you always feeling like you’re in control of exactly where you want to go. This is hard for some games to get right, but here it seems like serious thought has been put into striking a fine balance — if you’ve been left scarred by the Water Temple, let Subnautica show you how it’s done. You’ll be relishing every second you can spend underwater, though you should also definitely fear what lives in the depths.
Compared to other survival games, Subnautica’s difficulty comes from finding everything you need rather than keeping yourself alive — while it does have the customary hunger and water levels to stay on top of, the game mercifully lets you off by not including fatigue so you can technically swim around forever (and get hopelessly lost) as long as you have some fish and bottled water. However, due to the lack of autosave, the infrequent enemy encounters are always a source of tension and, in my case, total panic. I remember venturing too far away from my HQ like the cocksure idiot that I am without having saved for a while and then “bumping” into the gigantic Reaper Leviathan, who very much wanted me to not be alive. Screaming ensued as he used my Seamoth like a toy before giving me a brief window to make my escape. While you do respawn in your base, you may drop precious items that you have been searching for for literal hours. It’s not as punishing as something like, say, The Forest, but it’s no walk in the park, either. There are, however, different modes instead of the “default” option with one having no difficulty whatsoever for totally free exploration, so there’s likely to be a Subnautica for you for whatever mood you’re in.
Despite being set in the future, humanity unfortunately hasn’t evolved enough to develop a set of gills, so you will have to always be on the lookout for your oxygen levels. In the early goings, this can be quite restrictive with you barely even able to venture out from the shallow waters without needing to come up for air frequently. This may seem offputting, but it’s really just teaching the player that they’re going to need to unlock new items and better gear if they want to really dive into what the game has to offer. You can craft an air tank fairly on to make things easier with Subnautica then smartly continuing to open up more lucrative and exciting possibilities the deeper you venture. You can discover blueprints for crafting new items by scanning debris from other human excursions on the planet, which you can then produce through a fabricator.
This is the main loop of Subnautica: wandering off and seeing what you can find. While there is a story, it stops explaining itself just under ten hours in and leaves you to your own devices. There are no gigantic arrows in the sky or gratuitous hints about what you have to do next, and unlike the PC and Xbox One versions, there is no way to use co-ordinates (at least that I know of) to point you in the right direction. It’s surprisingly quite freeing for a game to be so vague, though this may frustrate some when there is such a vast expanse of water to explore and so few pointers. This is where it’s worth bearing in mind that you’re on a largely hostile alien world that’s mostly uncharted — consider yourself the Columbus of 4546B. You have to find your own paths and make your own imprint on this daunting planet.
While Subnautica does start you off with a more than functional lifepod as your base, you’re going to need to build your own home if you want to craft some of the game’s more exotic tools. it’s obviously not as smooth as using a mouse and keyboard, but building your own little haven on console feels intuitive and straightforward enough, though there do seem to be some issues with rotating items and not accidentally scrolling through your inventory instead. There are plenty of opportunities to give your base a personal touch, whether that’s from signs or decorating with random things you find out in the world. I have a simple but effective setup with two interconnected rooms that have a constant supply of food and water, as well as bays for different vehicles to make exploring the depths less of a hassle, which is where you need to be if you have any hopes of finding what you need to escape the planet.
Panic Button have mostly excelled in porting such an open and resource-intensive experience to console with the translation from keyboard to controller being a natural one despite some slight clumsiness that you acclimate to within a few hours. Technically, however, it can be a bit tumultuous. Subnautica on PS4 is nowhere near what you would call “broken”, but it does feel a few patches away from being what it should be. The framerate bottoms out quite noticeably when you break the surface and breaks some of the immersion with it, as well as the game suffering a few crashes during my time with it. It also struggles to handle a lot of things going on at once, the game’s “setpieces” slowing things right down to a crawl. This is by no means a dealbreaker, rather something that you should be aware of if you’re trying to weigh up which version of Subnautica is the best for you: if you want to simply kick back and explore, its PS4 version is more than capable, though the serious role-players among us would be best suited for PC.
Despite some quibbles, Subnautica was one survival game that I didn’t just want to survive in — I flourished and revelled in creating my own life under the sea. It feels unlike anything else in its (rather crowded) genre with its own identity shining through. Quite simply one of the most best and most rewarding survival games you will find on a console — or anywhere.
Even those who dislike survival games are bound to find something to like in Subnautica with its PS4 version doing more than enough to keep itself afloat.