As far as the good is concerned, Sabnautica: Below Zero offers an ethereal exploration experience, with exotic worlds to explore (both above and below the ocean), and a true sense of wonder as you do so. Not everything is friendly and most areas in the world are anything but safe, but every new sight and creature is fascinatingly exotic, and there’s a strong sense of place and being to Subnautica’s world. The environment itself is the lead character and much of the game’s emergent narrative-heavy experience is in interacting with it and learning about it. The developers have delivered exactly what they were looking to with this game, and that’s laudable. On the other hand… lord are survival games exhausting.
The bulk of and survival title’s loop is “collect X of resource Y to craft Z which will help you explore further, making it easier to collect resource A and look! Here’s blueprints B, C, and D that you can craft once you’ve got enough A.” You start out with a tiny pod, storage box and crafting bench being your entire world, but as you collect more resources and start crafting materials, you end up making a pretty nice little home for yourself. It’s the kind of place I actually wouldn’t mind living in myself – being under the sea and free of people and all – but the sheer busy work to gather everything up is not my idea of a good time. I know others love these things, but no, it’s not for me.
The other big issue I have with survival games like Subnautica is that they (at least all the ones I’ve played) really struggle with giving the adventure context. Because there’s so much focus placed on routine (collecting materials, making sure you’ve got food and water, crafting the exponentially expanding range of objects), any efforts at telling a story are often pushed back and delivered in such a piecemeal fashion that pacing is shot. And yet, while the emergent narrative elements are there, without the explicit story these games also feel too aimless to really hold my attention. Subnautica doesn’t solve this issue. The narrative elements don’t really do anything. You’re in this environment to investigate why a bunch of explorers have disappeared, and there are evil corporations and stuff involved. Any time there is some effort at explicit storytelling, it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s an inconvenience to the developers. They just wanted to give you a sandbox to play around with. But if I’m going to spend forty hours in a game I want to have a reason that goes beyond “you can build a nice house for yourself under the sea.” That’s great and all, but that’s a lot of in-game labour for something that’s only permanent until I stop playing.
My only issue was that I struggled to remember where some things were. Because I’m not overly ambitious, I would often spot a cavern or point of object that looked interesting, and I would make a mental note that I should come back to this place when I could dive deeper and have more oxygen. Unfortunately, backtracking wasn’t always easy to do with the mapping systems of the game. I’m sure I missed some interesting places from my play-through as a result.
Subnautica, and now its sequel, have been lauded for being a visual treat on the bigger consoles, and this is justified. It’s not just that the game renders detailed, complex environments to explore, but additionally, it’s the art direction that’s so appealing. The artists have struck the perfect balance between exotic alien landscapes, and environments that are familiar enough that they’re within the realm of believability. What’s more, there’s such a vibrant use of colour, and excellent contrast between the below-surface and above-surface worlds. The ocean below the surface is alternatively warm and coral-reef like, or deep and dark, while the surface world is a billowy frozen wasteland. You’ll need to explore both, and the aesthetic experience is the better for that contrast. The Nintendo Switch can’t offer the same visual fidelity of those big console experiences, but this is still a really lovely-looking game on the eyes, and I’d go as far as to say it’s one of the best looking Switch titles.
In many ways survival games represent the ultimate conclusion of the open-world ethos – the experience is entirely about moving around a large space and scouring it for “loot”, while largely doing away with elements like storytelling, character and any purpose beyond existing with that big space. In the interest of being entirely frank, this kind of thing just isn’t for me, but with that being said I do think that Subnautica: Below Zero is one of the better examples of it in motion. It’s not perfect, and the game is so weighted towards aesthetics that if you’ve got an alternative to the Switch you’re better off seeing the full, uncompromised creative vision on that platform instead. However, this Switch port is still more than adequate, especially for those that want to craft, build, mine and craft some more while on the go.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb