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Early Access Impressions: Stranded Deep

Pretty Shallow, Actually

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.

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