Early Access Impressions: Stranded Deep

At first glance, Stranded Deep looks like a halfway point between The Forest and Salt. Well, at first glance it looks extraordinarily like The Forest, as it opens with the extremely familiar idea of a plane crash. Stranded on a small island in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, you’re equipped with only a knife, water bottle, and whatever you can scavenge. It’s another survival game! But still, the midpoint between The Forest and Salt sounds like a brilliant place to be. Sounds like. Isn’t.

Within a day of release, Stranded Deep had 700 gushing positive reviews on Steam. Within three days, it’s up to 1500. The early access project is, at the time of writing, the fourth biggest seller on Steam. This has to be something pretty special, surely? Colour me bemused. This is a barely-started buggy mess.

Once you’ve survived your plane crash, you swim up to a life raft, and paddle your way to the nearest tiny island. All the islands are tiny, and all the islands are incredibly similar. If you’re lucky, your spawning island may be surrounded by wrecks with equipment and tools. If you’re unlucky, as I was for my first three plays, there will be bugger all. The islands themselves possess sticks, rocks, yukka plants and palm trees, as well as crabs. With these starting materials, you can build yourself an axe, a mallet, a campfire, and a bed. Chop down trees, hack logs into sticks, and gather palm fronds, and then discover its crafting.

On paper, the crafting sounds like a great idea. Rather than being done through a menu, or something like The Forest’s book, here it’s about piling items near each other, holding the correct tool in your hand, and then if you’ve the right things in the right place, you can select something to make. If if if. There’s no guide, no sense of the correct numbers of sticks, bindings, logs or whatever needed to build something. And no memory of ingredients needed for anything you’ve previously built. You just create a pile, and hope.

(Because everything’s a physics-laden object, creating those piles is a test of the engine, and put too much in one place in the desperate hope it might make a shelter and it’ll grind to a confused halt.)

Along with the crafting, absolutely nothing else is explained. Including the key-bindings once you’re in-game. By trial and error you eventually figure out that no, you can’t rearrange objects in your inventory so they’re assigned to specific number keys, and no, there’s absolutely no rationale to your health, hunger or thirst. Eventually, by blind luck, you might discover that the watch hidden on the F key can be changed to a rudimentary health/hunger guide by clicking a mouse button. However, you seem to get hungry a lot sooner than you get thirsty – water can comfortably be ignored for days. And hunger rapidly becomes impossible to sate.

There’s an argument to be made for not explaining lots of this stuff. It’s a survival game, and learning what you can do with your scant tools and items can makes sense as a process of exploration and elimination. But that doesn’t extend to not bothering to explain the gamey elements. The opening gives you an extremely poor micro-tutorial on how to make a martini (no, really), but it doesn’t apply to the game proper, and certainly doesn’t explain about why you need to be holding a hammer to build the foundations for a shelter, but can’t actually swing it. (If there’s a way to build the rest of a shelter, then my piling up wood, string, logs, palms and rocks until the game ground to a complete halt didn’t offer it.)

Cooking is all over the place. You can build a campfire, you can hold a crab over it and hear a crackling noise, and do this for a long time and still instantly get sick if you eat that crab. It turns out you have to hold it in the fire (not “put in it”, as they roll back out, and not “use it with” as that’s not an option) for about three in-game hours. What? Eating it, a crab the size of your head, sates your hunger for less than two hours. Right. Potato plants grow on some islands, but I’ve yet to discover the baking length of this game’s potatoes. Again, there’s no explanation, no suggestion as to why something may not be working. My assumption becomes, “Oh, early access I guess.”

It’s unquestionably very pretty. Not cutting edge, but a really nice use of assets to create gorgeous day and night scenery, and the water is stunning. Going underwater looks good too, although again, I was flailing around, not able to understand why I couldn’t hit fish with my knife, and certainly unable to build a fishing rod from a stick and some yukka bindings. There’s no sensible oxygen indicator either, so you have to try to notice the edge of the screen blackening a tiny bit in the already dark blue environs.

The bugs aren’t the biggest problem here. The lack of anything meaningful to do is far more problematic, with identikit islands failing to offer new opportunities. But bugs there are. That pile of objects I put together when trying to form a shelter had the spectacular effect of causing a distant shark to come flying out of the sea and hover in the air. Slightly more annoying, when paddling my dinghy (which, if accidentally beached, becomes game-breakingly useless) to a new island, it just vanished out of existence, leaving me stuck in the sea to be eaten by sharks.

I’ve watched a couple of people playing it on YouTube, running into all the same issues and then excitedly declaring how amazing it is. Ah, YouTube. But they seem to have tremendously more luck when it comes to local shipwrecks filled with interesting loot, like mallets, flare guns, torches, jerry cans and baked beans. I have found an engine part, but just the one. Presumably if I would only be lucky enough to spawn near more unusual items, there might be more to it. As it is, three attempts to get nothing like it seems too many.

I’ve no idea what is supposed to be done to maintain food levels, when eating four huge crabs in an afternoon and evening left me starving to death. I’ve no idea where the crafting is supposed to go after the foundations for a shelter. I’ve no idea why I’m supposed to be scared of the sharks, which mostly seem to gently nibble.

Stranded Deep, apart from being a really daft name, looks like the game I’m so wanting to play. A shipwrecked sim, Robinson Crusoe meets Castaway, with survival and crafting and exploration: gosh, I want to play that game. This one is not it, not yet. It could be, but it’s a long, long way off for now.

Stranded Deep is in early access, on Steam for £11.

45 Comments

  1. Dale Winton says:

    Just what we need on steam – another early access survival crafting game

  2. _Stu_ says:

    “when paddling my dinghy (which, if accidentally beached, becomes game-breakingly useless)”

    You do realise you can drag the raft back to the sea if it gets beached?

  3. Blackcompany says:

    This entire survival game genre is slowly becoming a parody of itself. Empty promises, unfinished games…the genre should be called Perpetual Beta.

    • Gruzbad says:

      I got a 7 day ban on the Steam forum for saying pretty much the same thing. Red flag!

  4. darkhog says:

    Wait a minute… Plane crash? Island? IT’S LOST: THE GAME!

  5. Morcane says:

    Survival (zombie) crafting game? Must be good!

    If you want an actual good game with a strange name, play Grey Goo – I fully expect a WIT on that one.

    • LionsPhil says:

      In its defense, I don’t believe it has any zombies from what I’ve seen.

      For some value of “defense” that means “there is even less game here”.

  6. Chicago Ted says:

    sasuga early access
    Sadly this is unlikely to be my dream survival game: Robinson Crusoe 2015, but I’ll give it a yo ho ho try and follow the development news. If it gets to a point where I think it’s worth it, I’ll probably grab it off Steam for the convenience.

    • Dilapinated says:

      Robinson Crusoe 2015 sounds like one of those 90s cyberpunk-reimagining saturday morning cartoons. Then I remembered the date and was sad.

  7. Barberetti says:

    Salt’s already scratching my island survival itch nicely thanks. If there’s a non Steam version planned, I might check this out somewhere down the line once they’ve sorted out the bugs etc.

  8. Perjoss says:

    Tom Hanks Simulator 2015

    • bear912 says:

      Tom Hanks’ Pro Survivor 2, perhaps?

      Also, if the yukka plants you’re referring to are the same sort of spiky succulents that you can find in the American Southwest, for instance, the typical spelling is “yucca”, I believe. Forgive me if I’m confused! Just figured I’d point that out in case this was unintentional.

      Anyway, I struggle to find a way of asking this that doesn’t come across as condescending to developers or as “This game isn’t realistic hhHWwwhhaaah!” so I’ll just speak my mind and hope it doesn’t come across like that. This:

      water can comfortably be ignored for days. And hunger rapidly becomes impossible to sate.

      is the sort of thing that makes me wonder if the developers have even spent much time camping. Dehydration and exposure will kill you before hunger, though hunger could certainly make errors in judgement more likely.

      I haven’t played any survival games, really. Are there any that do reflect our basic needs more accurately?

      • Wowbagger says:

        I’m not sure about specific survival games but there’s a plethora of Mods for Skyrim that make it realistic, down to calorie consumption and heat/cold exhaustion. Once I found Frostfall and real basic needs mods for it I never took them off.

      • MayteraIndica says:

        I am in no way a survivalist and I’ve been camping less than a handful of times during my life, but NEO Scavenger seems to handle things in a more realistic/complete fashion. You have meters for hunger, thirst, fatigue, ambient temperature (and, subsequently, core body temp), carrying capacity, physical impairments, immune system status, pain tolerance, and blood loss. As soon as a game hits all those points AND adds in some sort of psychological status bar, then…uh…I guess I’ll, you know, buy it.

  9. Sam says:

    It genuinely surprises me that Unity games can have such significant bugs in them. I wonder if the developers are programming in a completely wrong headed way, or are they innate to the engine and the better developers are working around them? A dingy accidentally vanishing could be explained by all kinds of esoteric memory errors, but the point of Unity is to avoid all that fuss. So presumably there’s a line of code somewhere in their game that’s meant to be removing distant objects but they’re checking against the wrong position or something.

    Problems with lots of physics objects interacting seems common across Unity games (Kerbal Space Program tends to reach a critical mass of parts and suddenly gets unplayable,) which is weird given how central to Unity the rigid body physics engine is. It’s like if Twine broke down from too many emotions.

    • Baines says:

      There are probably issues within any pre-packaged complex physics system, just as there would be in any complex physics system that you yourself would create. It seems that if you play around with any physics system enough, you will eventually get it to break in weird and sometimes hilarious ways.

      Honestly, when you get into abstractions and simplifications and time systems and the like, you shouldn’t really expect complex physics to just work 100% of the time.

      Perhaps an issue with Unity is how ‘easy’ it makes physics. You’ve got developers that don’t really know what they are doing who are relying on the pre-packaged system to do a significant chunk of the work for them. They don’t code object manipulation, because they rely on just applying forces in the physics system. You get people trying to make physics-driven combat systems by trial and error. You get people who think four wheel colliders and gravity are all you need for a car sim, ignoring both the other factors required for a realistic sim as well as the factors that actually need to be fudged in various ways for a ‘fun’ car (such as one that isn’t at risk of rolling over just because you made a turn at 45 mph.)

      That’s why “Unity game” is in the position that “Flash game” used to be years ago. Lowering the bar for entry makes it easier for people to make something, but it doesn’t guarantee that they’ll make something well.

      • Sam says:

        You make very good points and I heartily agree with them.

        Making something that “works” is now easier than ever before, but making something that works well is about as hard as it has ever been. To take the Flash example, you can make surprisingly high performance games with it but you end up having to deal with memory management and faux-OpenGL low level stuff and it all ends up being very similar work as if you’d made it in C++ to start with. Often more work as the basic support isn’t there and you end up having to write shaders in an assembly-like language that makes code maintenance a nightmare.

        Which all makes assessing early access stuff even harder. If you played Doom months before it was released and the framerate was worrying, you could rest fairly safe that it’ll be improved by release. The majority of early access games just get weighed down as more features are inexpertly piled on. But then some are made by experienced (or I guess supernaturally skilled) software developers and it really will all work out for the best, but determining which is the case for a particular game is extremely difficult.

        • Sunjammer says:

          Unity relies on PhysX for its physics, which is not too shabby. The idea that a physics system, a hugely complex thing, should just magically work for any scenario you throw at it is a terrible one. Actually the whole “Unity can do anything” idea is kind of dangerous considering just like any other engine it has quirks developers need to learn to work with or around.

          As for the Flash thing, you can just do the smart thing and migrate to Haxe already, which takes out a lot of the complexity of the shader integration for one.

  10. JpHetzer says:

    I do agree that the game was released too early, as it was there isn’t much to do in it yet – and yes, my raft also just vanished at one point, so the bugs are an issue.

    But some key points of your critique I found a bit unjustified:
    # You can just drag your raft back into the sea if it’s beached, in the same way you can drag around any object.
    # For once a game tries to recreate animals like sharks in a somewhat realistic manner instead of just utilizing them in a typical antagonistic way common in games – as they don’t just attack you, but circle you, test you by bumping into you etc. – and you criticize it for this?
    # The guides of how your survival watch works, how crafting works and what you can craft are all in the guide section on Steam. I realize they should be in the game at some point, but as long as they’re there that’s hardly a major point of critique in an early access game. The problem is rather that the crafting recipes, once again, are not reasonable enough to be found out without a guide to begin with.

    Overall though, I too had expected more from this game’s (early access) release, and I hope it will feature more worthwhile exploration (as in more different island with different stuff on them) as well as more balanced survival mechanics and more reasonable crafting once it’s done, assuming it will be.

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      John Walker says:

      Yes, when I’ve spent five minutes fruitlessly swinging a machete at a shark’s face, and it calmly ignores me, I’d argue that’s perhaps deserving of criticism : )

      • Sam says:

        I watched a video of someone playing it and they spent ages waving a stick near a shark with no apparent effect. But then it dropped dead, so I guess it was getting hit and showing absolutely no feedback for that event.
        He finished the video by recommending everyone buy it and remarking how wonderful it was that the game had “absolutely no bugs.” Hooray for new-new-new media.

        • Baines says:

          Considering that AAA publishers ask us to pay up to $60 (and much more for special editions and pre-bought DLC packs) for buggy and unfinished products that sometimes don’t even run on entire groups of machines, then I guess the critical standard for calling something “buggy” has be somewhat loosened.

        • LionsPhil says:

          Sounds like Robbaz, who is generally happy about everything unless it’s really utterly broken or tedious.

          He makes a change from all the second-rate GRR MUST FIND AN EXCUSE TO BE ANGRY AT EVERYTHING clones.

        • April March says:

          Maybe the shark died of shame.

      • JpHetzer says:

        Ah, in that case you have a fair point of course.
        My encounter with the sharks didn’t turn out quite as hilarous and buggy, so I had a bit of a different experience. I do think it’s quite commendable that the animals don’t just attack you but rather have a somewhat realistic behaviour though…well, appart from this whole ignoring machete hits business, mind you. ; )

  11. Paradukes says:

    Hang on, is this a sequel in some way to the old-school Stranded and Stranded 2? I mean, it might well be a coincidence, but they were about surviving on a tiny island as well.

  12. badmothergamer says:

    Long time reader, first time commenter. I found this review a bit harsh and didn’t see any replies from folks who had played it so wanted to drop my two cents. The reason the Steam reviews are so positive is because the first few hours for most (Mr. Walker being the rare exception) are very enjoyable. It’s a survival/crafting sim that doesn’t have immersion breaking (for me) monsters/zombies and graphically it is much sharper than Salt/Rust and much brighter than The Forest.

    Mr. Walker is correct there aren’t any instructions but this wasn’t an issue for me. Everything is fairly intuitive, the only game breaking bug is the disappearing raft (and even that isn’t a big deal because the sharks aren’t aggressive) and there are quick start guides just a google search away for the stuff you can’t figure out. Plus, it only takes 2 minutes to read through the full guide because there isn’t much to do…

    …and therein lies the problem. Once you get over the beauty and start to craft your shelter, you realize there isn’t anything else to do except explore (crafting is extremely limited), and as much as I enjoy exploration, it isn’t very enjoyable. The islands are all small and almost exactly the same and most of the special items you find in wrecks are useless in this build. I also had major issues getting lost. I’d start swimming towards an island, the only one on the horizon, but as I swam closer other islands would appear that looked even closer than the one I was swimming towards throwing off my bearings. Then, as I turned around to look at the island I just left, other islands would often appear around it that I couldn’t see originally making it difficult to determine which island I had left. I’m not sure if it’s an engine issue or what (my view distance was set to max) but I rage quit a few times when I couldn’t get back to my base island and had only swam one island away.

    I’ve played about 8 hours, so for $15 that isn’t bad (my general value rule is $1/hr). As long as they keep updating it I can definitely see myself going back once there is more to do. However, I’m worried about the update process. I found they have been working on this game for more than 18 months, which is scary because it’s a fairly simple game and in my completely unprofessional opinion should be further along at this point.

    tl;dr: Enjoyable for a few hours. If they establish a regular update schedule, this could be a great game.

    • rcguitarist says:

      And just like the others, it will never be completed and will remain in it’s current state forever. That’s the entire point of making these types of early access games.
      Three people spend a few months making this quarter-developed fetus of a game and throw it on steam as early access. They watch the money roll in from idiots and go on with their lives ALOT richer. They can’t be sued for selling a broken or incomplete product because they told you up front that was what you are buying.

      • TheFreeman says:

        Some see the glass half full and others half empty i guess. Now i won’t deny that yea there are a lot of games that were tossed out there to make a fast buck. Yea we can’t do anything if someone takes our money and runs. The system does need to change so we can stop that from happening. Yet this game has promise, it’s been in development for 2 years with only 2 devs, it’s a labor of love and i don’t think they wanna see it die.

        • Gruzbad says:

          If 2 years of development got this far, how long do you suppose it will be before it’s finished? I suspect that the updates will be very few and very far apart. I predict a Starforge style punt to 1.0 by year’s end.

      • badmothergamer says:

        I have no problem with Early Access as it currently is. This was purchased with the full knowledge that it may never be updated again. If purchasing the alpha of a game for $15 and enjoying it for 8 hours makes me an idiot, so be it.

  13. Chaz says:

    Well I quite enjoyed it and found it quite relaxing, like a little tropical holiday. Sat around a beach and made a fire and a hut. Went for a swim and explored a wreck. Went spear fishing in the shallows. all very chill. No monsters, cannibals, pirates, zombies to antagonise you.

    Is there bugs and a big lack of content right now? Of course, it’s a bloody early access title and it’s only been out for 3 days. But it’s in a lot better shape than many other Kickstarter and Early Access titles I’ve tried at similar points in their life.

    Same rules apply here as for any other EA game; buyer beware. In six months time it might have tons more content etc, it might not, it may get finished or it may not, who knows?

  14. TheFreeman says:

    Gotta agree with badmothergamer that this review is a bit harsh, and I can respect that. Freedom of speech and all right? Yet what people don’t realize is that this game [from what I gathered together] was made by 2 people over a 2 year period. 2 Devs over 2 years and it’s already this good. Yea it’s got bugs, yea it doesn’t hold your hand and walk you through, and yea you have to discover things but guess what? That’s the beauty, that’s what makes it so great. Too many games today are “use this, to make this, to do this”. That’s why we get bored of them, there’s no challenge anymore. Humanity didn’t reach a point of space exploration, of advanced medicine, of insane technologies by having someone guide us through the steps. We got here through discovery, long hours ripping our hairs from our head and pacing around madly. This game makes you do that. So to say “Along with the crafting, absolutely nothing else is explained.” And have that be a negative point is just silly. It should excite you that you have to discover how to cook a crab, or build a shelter, or fish. The lack of an oxygen bar makes sense; in life you don’t have an oxygen bar. If you started to run outta breath you begin to pass out things start to go black. Don’t let hand holding games become our future. We need games that challenge us and make us think not ones that simply dull our minds. We have enough misused drugs already.

    • Uncertain says:

      Hrm. Having one game hold your hand and having another blindfold you, glue you to the ceiling, blast the whole room out of an airlock and tell you to survive are two undesirable extremes. You’re not actually inside the game and can’t be expected to know when you’re drowning or even how to operate your hands, which is the whole idea behind interfaces, visual feedback, instructions etc. There’s a happy medium between patronising the player and telling them how to use their new product.

      If they’re going to leave out the oxygen bar then it needs replaced, because people generally predict danger in advance based on their senses instead of suddenly noticing they’ve started passing out and then trying to swim 10 metres to the surface. Well-trained people can dive to the seabed, but I can barely swim. What can my character do? The very Gods can only confer! Surely a game about survival shouldn’t mandate death as a trial-and-error method of learning what your body can do. Starving the player for catching and cooking food sounds questionable as well.

      Also, if your development team consists of 2 guys, perhaps a fully 3D-modelled physics-based procedural open-world survival game is a bit ambitious. I hope this game reaches release quality because it looks neat, but it depends on two strangers spending the next few years of their lives on a game that’ll go on a virtual shelf marked “Maybe someday” behind every other EASurvival that comes out between now and then.

      • badmothergamer says:

        I’m not sure how long Mr. Walker played the game but there are obvious visual cues when you start running out of air. The edge of the screen begins to turn black and small black spots begin to appear around the center. It’s subtle, which I strongly prefer to a flashing oxygen bar, but very obvious once you spot it the first time.

        Plus, all you need to do is check a watch, dive, see how long it takes before you lose your breath, then you know exactly how much time you have every time you play the game in the future. Much better than an oxygen bar in a game with no live UI.

  15. Darth Grabass says:

    “…not able to understand why I couldn’t hit fish with my knife.”

    Maybe not so coincidentally, this is something that’s nearly impossible to do in real life as well.

    Also, you need to put support beams on your foundation before putting on the roof.

    Oh, and *yucca.

  16. Jakkar says:

    Cannot quite judge whether John is being a sole voice of reason about this one, or simply having one of his overwhelmingly grumpy days when any game will displease him :x

    <3

  17. Universal Quitter says:

    I dunno. I had a lot of fun with it. I had fun with Banished too, and you guys tore that apart too.

    I can’t tell if you guys are just that bad at the games you review or if you’re just pretentious assholes that would rather be playing hatoful boyfriend and fez.

  18. OneL3gend says:

    The game looks good. But it seems a little buggy to me. Also it seems to be a little bit of a rip-off of Unrealsoftware’s Stranded Series with amamzing graphics (but minus the gameplay and stableness, even though this will hopefully be fixed in later releases.

    I am rather suspicious of the similarness of the games, especially since Stranded III is in development now and the Wilson (the guy from Cast Away) reference, which found itsself into Stranded II 8 years ago.

    Anyway, this game definately has potential to become good one day, it was just released a heap of time far too early to be properly playable and worth the money payed for it…

  19. supahz says:

    I agree that this is a harsh, weak review. I don’t know why you would grief an alpha version 0.01.H1 (as of this posting)… The whole point to Early Access is to help fund/develop the game, not nitpick what doesn’t work in the earliest of stages. It’s all part of the process. What the game allows for in such an early stage is already fun and interesting, if limited. I’m happy with my money spent.

    Incidentally, the key bindings are all listed under “options” and “input”… LIKE YOU’LL FIND IN EVERY OTHER GAME IN HISTORY. In this day and age of no manuals and game downloads, that’s a no brainer, yeah?