What a difference a year and a half makes. And what little difference it makes too. That's how long it's been since I last wrote about Stranded Deep [official site] - a game I've returned to during its lengthy Early Access development despite its many problems. And now it's two years old, it's finally shaping up into something solid and compelling. And yet at the same time, while it's fixed so many of its issues, still doesn't feel like it knows where it wants to go.
Like The Forest (I forget who is accused of copying who) you begin in a wibbly-wobbly plane crash, but in this instance land in the sea. Swimming up to a life raft, you paddle your way to a little nearby island, and begin that now so familiar routine of foraging and crafting to survive.
The massive improvements appear from the start. First, there's a tutorial that talks you through a few of the game's ideas. It'll have you craft some necessities, and get your first fire and shelter built, then leave you to it with the concept in your grips. This starter island (you could ignore it and go elsewhere first, and indeed switch off the tutorial altogether) is small, and will need to be abandoned straight away if you're going to survive. So you paddle off once more, and find a larger patch of land. The next huge improvement is here: before sailing to a new island meant aiming toward a weird placeholder island shape on the horizon, which would then load in its own unique tree-line etc once you were close enough. This meant it was impossible to remember which island you'd sailed from when exploring, which was infuriating. This seems much improved.
And the crafting. That was the real reason why, while I had a soft spot for Stranded Deep, I just couldn't recommend it before. It was a disaster, requiring you drop items you were going to build with into a madcap pile on the floor, not knowing what was possible to craft until you'd randomly combined the right... it was terribe, but it isn't now. Now it's sort of OK. Thank goodness they've had the sense to put in a proper crafting menu, with ingredient lists that light up when the tally is met. It's still a little daft, forcing you to craft objects one at a time (a real pain when trying to make a bunch of rope at once, for instance), and you have to craft them into existence in the game world, not directly into your inventory. That leads to a lot of needless fiddle, and a lot of dropping things in order to pick them up again.
That's an issue that extends elsewhere. Your inventory is very limited (reasonably so - you're a dude on an island), but gets in an awful muddle. Pick any object up while empty handed and it'll ridiculously equip it. I rarely need to be holding a palm frond - there are very few Egyptian pharaohs to waft - and would much rather it just disappear into my magic pockets. You switch items around not with the scroll wheel, nor with the number keys, but by holding down Tab for a pop-up inventory. Except when it's full and you're holding something in your hand, you can't swap them in and out - you have to drop something first... And on and on. You could sort of argue some of it as realism, but in a game where yukka plants grow overnight, and potatoes take around four hours to bake over a fire, there's not exactly a strong theme of reality within. Convenience of interface is always preferable, and while it's been hugely improved, there's still much work to be done.
The other massive problem was physics, and again it's moved forward in leaps and bounds. Or indeed without the leaps and bounds with which the game's objects would randomly sproing and flip when put into piles. There are still oddities - drop a box on some palm fronds on some driftwood and there's a good chance you'll come back to find they've catapulted each other around the place. But the frightening jiggidy wobbling frenzy has been calmed, doubly improved now you're no longer required to create such idiotic piles in order to fathom the crafting.
And it's ever more exceptionally beautiful. As a sunset simulator it's up there with the best. Animals, waves, animations: they are exemplary, and all involved should be incredibly proud. All combined, this makes for a much smoother time, with your focus better placed on worrying about your next drink or meal than on fighting against the systems. However, it's a smoother time to not a lot more.
So, clearly I'm being a bit of a hypocrite here. I so recently eulogised Raft - a game whose content barely scrapes a couple of hours before it's exhausted. And yet I'm being damning of Stranded Deep for not going anywhere over a much longer period. But there's a rather crucial difference here: Raft, a third-year project by some students, has been out for two months. Stranded Deep last week passed its two year anniversary. I think after a game has been on sale for two years, it's acceptable to start demanding something of a direction.
I think they've become bogged down in the tiniest of details, and have perhaps lost site of the ocean for the waves. Gosh they're beautiful waves. The sea effects are the best I can ever remember, and bobbing on them in the raft is exceptionally good. Then what's that over the side? Shit! A tiger shark! Beautifully rendered, perfectly animated, meticulously circling the craft. Smaller fish flit back and forth, while gorgeous rippled views of a shipwreck pass underneath. It looks utterly amazing, and those moments of panicked escapes from sharks are fantastic. But what are you escaping for?
Regular updates are still coming, new items to craft, new ways to store things, and much improved buildings to put up. But this forgets and forgoes purpose. You can now skin animals, tan hides, weave on looms, firelighting makes sense (you no longer start with a lighter and bottle of water, instead with more interesting in-game means of getting fire and dealing with thirst). There's a map editor for creating your own collection of islands. There are fishing spears (hurrah!), furniture, bats and gulls, you can farm, see your own body, climb trees to get coconuts... they add and add and add, and it's splendid that they do. And while there are some peculiarly petty Steam reviews complaining because Change = Bad, it's not, it's good. The game is much improved. But what am I surviving for? Where am I heading? And why, in the name of all the universe, can I not craft a boat?
I'm not arguing for an end-game, although I love when such things are optional. I'm just arguing for a greater sense of purpose here. A greater sense that I'm surviving not to build a bigger beach house, but because I'm trying to get somewhere, or be rescued by someone, or team up with a lovely tiger shark to solve crimes. I think without this there's an ennui that sets in, that becomes progressively worse the longer the game has existed.
Stranded Deep is no longer the broken, frustrating game it once was. It is, I'd venture, rather good. And it's undeniably bloody beautiful. It just needs to work out why it is, and then it could be really something.
Stranded Deep is in early access for Windows and Mac via Steam for £11/$15/€15.