I came for the shark-stabbing, but I stayed for the underwater potato-farming.
First-person survival game FarSky (which was released a few months ago but I’m looking at it now as part of Survival Week) is very much a Minecraftbut. It’s Minecraft but underwater, and it does enough with the latter that the former swiftly stops seeming cynical.
Much of the survival drama revolves around oxygen, inevitably. You can only leave your base for so long before your air tanks empty, so there’s a big element of how far out you dare push yourself, based on how long you think it’ll take to get back, and allowing some wiggle room in the event a shark decides it fancies a bit of leg.
Hunger plays a part in your excursions too, though you can always stab a passing fish for a quick sushi hit. How it is consumed without taking off your diving helmet is not explained, but I’m going with ‘a tiny mouth on each fingertip’.
It’s agreeably stressful, primarily because it turns out there a load of hills and sheer cliff faces underwater. A deep sea area which was straightforward to reach – wheeeeeee! – is a right bugger to get back from, and arduously jump-jetting back to the shallower waters your base dwells in sees the oxygen timer depleting yet more dangerously. Especially when a hammerhead shark decides to have a go while you’re at it, or you thoughtlessly swim through a flock of jellyfish in your hurry.
There’s a big element of fudging things for expediency’s sake, which I have mixed feelings about. The expanding base has an infinite oxygen supply and doesn’t flood despite having a big old entry hole in the bottom, for instance, while you can knock up diving suits which can withstand greater depths or tanks which hold more air just by farming the right metals and clicking a button.
Then there are ‘energy orbs’ harvested from certain seaweed, from which lights and ‘stunning spears’ can be built. This really isn’t sub-aquatic Robinson Crueso, despite at least leaning in that direction Hell, never mind, this is Minecraftbut, and that means your major preoccupation is finding and gathering said metals in the first place.
That’s really what it’s all about – you know that silver or copper or manganese is out there in the depths somewhere, but can you get to it (and then home again) safely? Getting home at the end of a day’s foraging is an essential concept to survival games, and FarSky’s deep blue danger adds an frisson of terror.
I should mention before I forget that there’s some wonderful, appropriately ominous music too. Its minimalism nods to Minecraft too, but it builds deep sea doom atmosphere rather well.
Then there’s the farming. It’s not strictly necessary, as while much less inefficient, fish-hunting isn’t too tall an order – although their blood will attract nearby sharks – but it’s an oddly compelling minigame. There’s a beautiful strangeness to growing carrots, potatoes and beans underwater.
I built out a huge farm level of my base and filled it with dozens of pots (which require iron, dirt and fertiliser to create), methodically seeding new ones every time I harvested my fruit and veg. I had enough carrots to last a lifetime, and so many baked potatoes that I could have opened a roadside caff upon my return to the surface. Yet I just couldn’t stop. Deep sea FarmVille had me.
It’s a shame that the hunger system isn’t more fleshed out, as it would make the farming more critical. Give me a gaming stomach which needs a balanced diet, proteins and carbs and a spread of vitamins, especially if it is to take on grueling underwater endurance tests. Make it so I can’t live on fish carcass alone.
Fair enough though, FarSky does the pop survival thing, with Minecraft as its primary cue. And it works. Building is much less core a part, as here you mine and build with very specific objectives in mind – a new air tank, a harpoon gun, a plant pot – rather than for sake of expression or even experimentation.
You can expand your base as much as you like, pretty much solely to create more space for plant pots, but its fixed iron cube nature means there’s almost nowhere to go in terms of visual design. This is a survival game, not a building game, and it’s that narrow focus which makes FarSky work despite having relatively few component parts. Simply going to get something is a big deal, because of air, because of food, and because of sharks.
Ah, the sharks. They may take a fair old while to actually kill you, but they are fearsomely relentless, and so much quicker than you are. They’ll strike, disappear, then strike again while you’re still trying to work out where they came from last time. Even once you have some basic spears (which first requires building a spear gun), the better option is often to peg it back to base, strafing as much as you can. And make sure you have bandages (made from seaweed), as if you’re bleeding you’ll attract even more sharks (and barracudas too – they’re almost worse because they’re smaller and faster, so harder to hit). Bleeding, asphyxiating and starving – this is the FarSky way.
It pulls off its central conceit, then, but what it lacks is any meaningful longevity. You’ll have built all you can build within half a day, you’ll have seen quite how pretty the deepest depths of its oceans are, and even got to the point where you can take down a blue whale or a shoal of dolphins for kicks (I felt awful about it afterwards), and without a true building element there’s nothing to do but start over at that point.
Primarily, FarSky is a five or six hour campaign in which you have to retrieve increasingly far-flung submarine parts in order to escape to the surface, but there is a hardcore mode and a pure sandbox mode, and I feel compelled to visit neither of them. I know what it is to have the best air cylinders and the sharpest spears already. Still, given how many survival games are a work in progress until the fanbase moves on, it is oddly refreshing to have something complete, albeit small.
Wouldn’t mind a few more vegetables to grow, though. Mushrooms can grow without sunlight, right?
FarSky is out now.