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Stranded: Alien Dawn is a familiar survival sim with room to grow

Haven’t I crash-landed here before?

Stranded: Alien Dawn is Haemimont Games’ second sci-fi sim on the trot, and despite being set on a planet that actually has air this time, it could well make Surviving Mars’ well-funded colony building feel like an afternoon playing with Lego. In Stranded, as I saw from a hands-off preview at Gamescom 2022, you’re certainly not planetside by choice, having crash-landed on an uncharted world with just four surviving astronauts left to scavenge, hunt and build their way towards something resembling a life.

“Like RimWorld”, I thought to myself upon hearing the pre-demo pitch, and subsequently wrote in my notes four separate times before ceasing to bother. If only mere words could convey just how much “like RimWorld” Stranded: Alien Dawn is – other 3D-ified clones exist, like last year’s Going Medieval, but here, even the exact spaceship-wrecking premise matches that of Ludeon Studios' seminal survival sim.

That said, if you’re going to crib from a sci-fi subsistence-‘em-up… I mean it might as well be from RimWorld, right? That game’s dizzyingly deep, anecdote-generating simulation has kept it on RPS’s best survival games list for ages, and if Stranded wants to go for the same combination of cerebral survival and unpredictable problem-solving, I say there’s no harm in letting it try. Besides, it’s not long into the demo before Stranded puts a twist on the RimWorld RimFormula: all of the colonists you can choose as survivors are preset, fully realised characters, not randomised avatars.

They still follow the survival sim norm of possessing personalised traits and skills, like improved combat effectiveness, faster healing speed, or an aversion to eating meat, but Stranded goes much further than usual in making your puppets seem like actual people. And while that means losing the fun of modelling likely doomed colonists after your own personal friends, there’s potential here for such personalities to inform how you manage them on each playthrough.

Rhino-like alien creatures roam a field in Stranded: Alien Dawn.

For instance, shortly after the survivors are put to work refashioning the crashed shuttle into a shelter, the resident soldier sidles up and reveals he’s found a nanoboost shot that could improve the recipient’s toughness and scavenging speed at the cost of inducing pain for several days. In typical sim fashion, there’s a choice to make over whether to let him take it himself, share it amongst the crew (reducing its effectiveness) or toss it. The demo proceeds with him taking a full dose, but if I were playing, his character-specific dialogue – which paints a portrait of somewhat shortsighted meathead – would make me question whether he’s the best person to pump drugs into. Especially given how he brushes off the shot’s drawback, though casual disregard for horrific consequences might just form the basis of Stranded’s sense of humour, just as it did in Haemimont’s Tropico entries.

Pain and productivity are just a couple of survivor facets you’ll need to consider as you take them from starving idiots to well-fed, well-armed members of interstellar microsociety. Picking a balanced team to handle the various farming, research, fighting (some of the local fauna really don’t want neighbours) and production tasks ahead of you will help, and as in RimWorld, there’s a detailed task priority system wherein you can have individual colonists focus on or ignore the many different types of jobs that need doing. These become more varied and numerous as your improvised camp slowly grows into a walled outpost and, eventually, a fortified compound with research rooms, veggie farms, and electrical power from generators and solar panels.

The demo skipped through a few different saves to show how such a base could come together, and even assuming you can keep the gang fed, healthy, and happy, it’s not always a peaceful process. Early on, the camp is attacked by a pack of giant roach-like bugs; there’s only one functioning firearm among the supplies, so most survivors fight back with knives, sustaining troublesome injuries in the process. You’ll need to equip everyone for combat and get them into fighting positions, even taking control of them directly if you want, but fighting appears largely automated once a skirmish begins. Again, like RimWorld.

Colonists open fire on attacking alien ants in Stranded: Alien Dawn.

One timeskip later, and a much larger bug horde is attacking again, though by this point the survivors have cobbled together a set of automatic turrets that dutifully squish the offensive without the crew having to look up from their vegetable pies. I also spotted laser rifles and laser pistols in one of the research tree branches, so you should still be able to take a direct approach if desired, though automatic turrets have their appeal when there’s so much else to do around the base.

Or, indeed, away from it. With time you can also construct a hot air balloon and send a survivor out on excursions: trips beyond the borders of your starting area, from which they can return with rare supplies or scavenged resources you may have exhausted closer to home. Perhaps inspired by RimWorld’s caravans, albeit more limited in execution. It doesn’t sound like there are other survivor bands elsewhere to trade with or fight against, unless Haemimont are saving them for a later reveal.

I was also a little disappointed that you couldn’t put the camera in the balloon and go off exploring yourself. The land we saw in the demo was mercifully fertile, but other than some weird animals and the occasional patch of purple shrubs, not actually that alien. I get that the planet needs to be Earth-like enough that the colonists don’t immediately suffocate, but a lot of the environments in Stranded look as much like Wales as they do somewhere genuinely otherworldly. Some more variety wouldn’t be unwelcome at all.

A colonist attends to their modest vegtable farm in Stranded: Alien Dawn.

Granted, you could level a similar criticism at RimWorld, and Stranded’s higher-def 3D style arguably gives it greater scope for some eye-catching alien weirdness. Maybe that’s something for the future – the game is entering early access in October, so what I’ve seen so far isn’t close to being “finished”, as nebulous a concept that is in modern game development.

I’d actually be quite happy if Haemimont focused the early access period on fleshing out the world; I think there’s already good enough strategic depth here, between all the survivor needs and tech trees, and I didn’t catch any apparent bugs or other technical issues that need urgent fixing. But having more ways to explore and interact with our new home would make for an even better simulation, and if Haemimont can get creative with them, then it wouldn’t hurt to have a few more ways to differentiate Stranded from its obvious inspiration. You probably know what that is. Anagram of IrmWorld.

Lastly, I’ll concede that a 30-minute preview isn’t great for conveying what makes these kinds of games so lastingly entertaining: the unscripted, unexpected moments of panic or hilarity that only come about through your own series of seemingly innocuous actions. How Stranded: Alien Dawn will deliver these precious moments remains to be seen, but fingers crossed for the full disasterclass experience. Colonists walking into their own traps as they race to extinguish an oven fire, crashing the excursion balloon from sleep deprivation after their bunkmate spent all night playing drums in the rec room, etcetera etcetera. Full colony-crippling comedies of errors, let’s go.

For more Gamescom coverage, be sure to check out our Gamescom 2022 hub for all the latest news, impressions from the show floor and more.
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About the Author
James Archer avatar

James Archer

Hardware Editor

James had previously hung around beneath the RPS treehouse as a freelancer, before being told to drop the pine cones and climb up to become hardware editor. He has over a decade’s experience in testing/writing about tech and games, something you can probably tell from his hairline.

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