Too Long; Didn't Play: Subnautica

Sponsored By: Epic’s Predatory Pricing totally altruistic and pro-consumer giveaway.

Time Swam: I have no idea, as the Epic Launcher doesn’t tell me that sort of thing.

Shallow End Review

So, let me see if I understand this correctly. You all love this game, but can’t be bothered to try literally anything by the greatest developer of all time.

But I’m the weird one.

Mariana Trench Review

I am a fan of boring games with lots of busywork. Farming Simulator, Spintires, Stardew Valley, Destiny—I’d even love to see Nintendo remaster the original Chibi Robo! My credibility as an authority on pointless grind, while perhaps not unparalleled, is certainly vast and deep.

So, when I tell you all that Subnautica isn’t a good game, I do so with hundreds (thousands?) of hours — in better games — to back me up. If you’re having fun with it, I won’t tell you you’re wrong, but I will silently judge you and perhaps rush my children out of your path as you walk by.

The game is visually stunning, if you like fish, which I don’t. The ocean is nature’s scrap pile, where she puts all of the hideous wretches and evolutionary mistakes that never see the light of day. And rightly so! Fish are the Mass Effect: Andromeda of animals, abandoned even by evolution before being fully patched.

Seriously, who thought the blobfish was a good idea as a character? That loyalty quest is terrible!

Fish aren’t even good to eat! I mean, even fish don’t like eating other fish. They’d literally rather bite a steel hook with a worm on it. Now, some of you might disagree, but let me pose the question: what’s the worst thing a fish can smell like? If you were honest, you would answer, “itself,” which tells you everything you need to know about fish.

To be fair, the horrid abominations surrounding you in Subnautica are gorgeous and well animated. That’s not my beef with the game. Some people think fish are beautiful creatures and keep large glass boxes in their homes so they can look at them. Those people are also wrong, but I’m not going to rain on anyone’s parade. Like what you like. What do I care?

No, my problem is with the gameplay. As I’ve made abundantly clear, I love grind. I’ll do menial quests and hunt for random encounters all day long. I’ve put over two hundred hours into Fallout 76, for crying out loud. But the loop in Subnautica isn’t fun.

First, there’s the air. You can swim for less than a minute before you start getting klaxon warnings to return to the surface. You can increase your air supply by singing “Even the Nights are Better,” or by crafting bigger oxygen tanks. But the oxygen tank crafting materials are on the bottom of the ocean, which you can barely get to with your starter kit.

Second, there’s the food. You pretty much have to eat all the time. The game starts you out with a couple of granola bars, but then you have to fish by playing whack-a-mole. Simply (he said sarcastically), swim up behind a fish, wait for the “grab fish” prompt, and hope you are fast enough to nail that infinitesimal hitbox. Then swim back to your home base and cook the fish, replenishing five percent of your hunger meter. Now go do it nineteen more times and hope you don’t die of thirst in the process!

Because you also have to manage thirst. Again, you start with a few Poland Spring bottles, but soon you’re on the hunt for some way to make water.

It took me an hour to figure out what I needed in order to make drinkable water: a very specific fish I caught completely by accident that can be used as a filter. Again, one ration of water crafted this way restores maybe five percent of your thirst meter.

In the end, I spent the vast majority of my time in Subnautica trying to catch tiny, skittish fish and then swimming back to base to craft food and water—all just to stay alive long enough to get more ingredients for food and water. Over and over. Occasionally, I’d run across some metal, which I could use to make tools if I collected twelve more bits of it. Someday, I might even have enough to craft a stash box so I can store all these acidic mushrooms that are the apparently the only abundant thing in this game, and are probably good for absolutely nothing.

I see stories about people creating elaborate undersea bases, and I wonder how they’re doing it. The obvious answer is that they’re playing in “creative mode,” which disables everything that makes the game remotely interesting and leaves the player to contend only with the horrific monsters of the depths.

Sure, I could do that—if I thought any victory won by cheating was worthwhile. Why not just download a save file with an accurate reconstruction of Rapture from Bioshock and claim it as my own while I’m at it?

Will we all float on ok?

Part of me says, “Yes.”

Part of me says, “Are you kidding? You’ve got almost a thousand games in your library, and you’re going to obsess over this crap?”

I know who makes the more compelling argument.

And before you mention it, I know I haven’t played very long, but I’ve reviewed other games in this space that have slow starts. Typically, I’ll play longer before writing my opinion (for example, I played Metal Gear Solid 5 for six hours before writing the TL;DP). The difference is that other games made me want to play more by dangling progress in front of me. Subnautica offers no path to progression that I can see. I can’t craft anything because I need to explore, and I can’t explore because I’m too busy grabbing fish with my bare freaking hands to find anything that might make survival easier.

It’s a Catch-22 of suck. Put that on the box!

Is it the Deep Dark Souls?

Yes, but not in a good way. Dark Souls makes you feel weak and afraid, but competent. Subnautica makes you feel hungry and thirsty and suffocated, and doesn’t really give you much you can do about it.

It also surrounds you with fish, which is just freaking creepy.

Comments

I think you mean this developer. Focus is mostly a publisher. When they do develop something they give us this, otherwise known as multiple releases of the same game with barely any changes.

When it comes time to torture you, I'm pretty sure you just gave us the template. You'll be submerged with a couple granola bars and a water bottle with only fish to satiate yourself with. Eazy peezy!

I have to agree with your analysis. It never even occurred to me to try grabbing the little fish. Figuring out ingredient ratios and crafting chains was frustrating to the point of exhaustion. Did I screw myself by picking up all the metal I could find? Having no room for storing anything else would seem to indicate yes.
I really did play for a long time before I realized the little flitty fish could be captured and murdered. Wondering if that oversight caused my frustrations with the early game I restarted. Nope.
I was also getting atrocious monster pop-in. Approaching a patch of seaweed: All clear! I can see the entire patch and there is nothing. Still clear! Absolutely no danger... Oh sh*t a giant green thing is right there and it hates me! Also a swarm of farting things are suddenly behind me when just a second ago there was nothing.

Thanks for this! It mirrored my experiences with trying to play, and I ultimately gave up and assumed I had just lost my gaming touch.

Great breakdown!

It certainly mitigates my desire to get the game. Now, I can patiently wait for it to drop considerably in price before getting it, ensuring I won't regret a small investment.

Fwiw, I like Subnautica quite a bit. It's the loop No Man's Sky tries for but misses. Yes, the beginning of any survival game is a drag. Always is. Nature of the game, I think in that you need to learn how to do basic stuff before doing the more complicated things.

garion333 wrote:

Fwiw, I like Subnautica quite a bit. It's the loop No Man's Sky tries for but misses. Yes, the beginning of any survival game is a drag. Always is. Nature of the game, I think in that you need to learn how to do basic stuff before doing the more complicated things.

I preferred No Man’s Sky to Subnautica, so I’m no stranger to early early game drag.

I just found Subnautica to be more of a drag than other drags. If there were a video game drag race, Subnautica would win for having the most drag.

Also FWIW, there's a "freedom" mode that drops the thirst & hunger threats. It's not "creative" mode in that it still requires you to play the game, but there are far fewer time-based threats. That kind of pressure bugs me in just about any game like this, so I went straight for that and haven't regretted it. I feel like that solves like 80% of the gripes in this review.

As for the air limit thing, I got the first tank expansion pretty easily. Also, there are plants (Brain Coral) on the floor around the starting area that periodically burp air bubbles that refill your tank. Along with that, if you build the Seamoth, you get a vehicle with a built-in air recharge. So, you can use it as a kind of an anchor to better explore for materials.

But, all that said, the loop is basically working up depth upgrades and increasing how long you can wander away from your base to see spookier & spookier glowy big fish and weird flora. If that doesn't snag you, then yeah, the loop isn't rewarding. Oh yeah and there's the mystery of why your ship got shot down (turns out it's aliens).

(PS: Also I don't want to sound like a jerk saying "you're playing it wrong lol" - I've just had a pretty great time for about 30 hours with this game, a good mix of late-night chill play with occasional spooks. It grabbed me back when No Man's Sky was unplayable on my machine and fit that niche for me.)

First of all, you can play the game without the hunger/thirst thing. I hate that stuff too and all I had to do was select the game type where it's disabled. Air management is EASY and you get plenty of upgrades and other air sources to make it even easier as you go. With just a few hours in, air was almost of no concern to me unless I was free swimming at extreme depths. By the time you get to that point, all you have to do is keep your Seamoth or Prawn suit near-by.

Comparison's to No Man's Sky is fair and I'm a NMS fan too, but Subnautica is better in almost every way. The story is great, we didn't have to wait two years for the game to give you a reason to do the things you're doing, it didn't release as a ridiculous buggy mess, the atmospheric ambience is incredible - even more so if you play in VR.

Honestly, the only two complaints I had about the game are that early game inventory management is a pain and if you get too expansive with your base(s), the performance will eventually start to suffer.

Finally, if you hate Subnautica, you must hate life. Because you're dead to me.

I think perspectives on Subnautica may depend, strongly, on how the player feels about the narrative. I genuinely liked the story. I may be an easy mark for these things, but for me, there was a real sense of mystery and wonder to it. Because of that, I appreciated the challenge and frustration and risk of the exploration and crafting system - even if I did feel like the hunger and thirst meters were a little harsh and the inventory system was a little too cumbersome and limited. But, with those challenges, achieving each story beat felt earned and meaningful.

Without the story, I would have been utterly uninterested in the game. As it is, the

Spoiler:

rescue ship shootdown

is one of my top 10 video game moments of all time.

I always play with food/water on, but I'm also a veteran, and know where to go to get stuff to fix the problem. There's one specific spot with multiple fixes at once, to base building and food/water supplies, but there's no way to know where that is until you explore and find it. I think one of the crashed lifepods leads you near enough to notice, and the area is quite large and quite unusual by Subnautica's standards, but if you miss it, the game will be substantially harder.

So I beeline my butt right over there as soon as I've got some of the basics (at least a scanner, that's critical), and just catch fish and filter water in the meantime. By midgame, the food/water cycle is no big deal anymore; you've got all you need in your base. You just need enough food for expeditions. I normally carry two salted fish and two water bottles, and rarely need to touch the fish. Once you've got substantial power online, and find the right blueprint, then water becomes trivial, something you barely even have to think about anymore.

Like others, I'd suggest revisiting the game by turning off the food/water cycle, if it bothers you that much. Subnautica is an outstanding title, one of the best games I've played in the last few years. The food/water thing isn't at all necessary to the experience, it's just realistic. Turning it off won't wreck the game. I think it's included by default to increase the immersion factor. (Pun totally intended.)

Not having enough oxygen, on the other hand, is kind of the core early gameplay loop. Your oxygen supply determines how deep you can get. You're typically diving to near your limits to find the things you need to get to the next set of limits. The transition to midgame is probably when you field your first submersible; these include an unlimited oxygen supply, so suddenly your depth limit becomes how far your hull can take the pressure, instead of how much O2 you can carry.

The naked diver -> submersible section can take a long time, because it depends on finding the right blueprints and right materials, and those are scattered pretty much randomly all over a very large area. The The exploration segment, trying to find all this stuff, can get a little excessive. Consulting the wiki is a viable option if you're getting frustrated; it's a lot better than not finishing the game.

Really, I'd say the game has four segments:

1. Naked diver.
2. Tech-assisted diver (tanks, fins, various suits)
3. Submersible deployment
4. Cyclops (big submarine) deployment

Each stage changes the game sufficiently to really keep the whole experience fresh. But Stage 2 can take too long.

Oh, I should also say: different fish have different food values! Some are much better to eat than others. There's one fish that's real good for food in the starting area, and one that's necessary for water. If you limit yourself to catching those when you're hungry/thirsty, you'll have a much better time. Some of the fish really are pretty bad, but the good food fish (I can't remember what it's called) shouldn't need more than 2 or 3 to fill you up, even if you start very hungry. And they are freaking everywhere.

It's mentioned that the food you're eating only fills up 5% of your meter, but I looked it up and even the worst cooked fish in that area fills up 18% (unless you're eating rotten food) and gives you 2-5% water. It's mentioned water bottles only fill up around 5% of your meter, but the worst water bottle fills up 20%. You also lose very little if you die -- pretty much only the materials you have on you, but no gear -- and you can go pick them up where you died. All of it gets easier as the game goes on. The beginning struggle as you're trying to discover things really amplifies that you're trying to survive on an alien aquatic planet. But you can turn it off if you don't want to get over that hump. The game gives you more sense of direction when you get the repair tool and scanner. So until then you might not have a good idea of what Subnautica is really about: exploration and discovery. It's not really a survival game, and the food, water and oxygen meters only really serve as a tether to stretch to reach new places. It's like a soft gating, and gates aren't bad when the ways to overcome them are interesting.

But ya, it's got flaws. Some people think the inventory system is a bit too restrictive. There is a decent mod community for those types of solutions, though.

I'm not one to tell a reviewer that their opinions aren't valid, but...

You know how you have those books you will recommend and loan to anyone you like? (For my wife and I, those are Good Omens and Green Grass, Running Water.) Basically: they will likely love those books, and if they don't, well, maybe that friendship was doomed from the start.

Ever since my brother gifted me Subnautica a year ago, this has been one of those things for me. I love it, and will give it to anyone I care about, because it is fun and beautiful.

Rant done.