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Deserted Islands? A Return To Stranded Deep

Too shallow?

Returning to Stranded Deep [official site] after eight months of early access, I'm more surprised by what hasn't been fixed or changed, than by anything that has. The survival sim which drops you out of the sky near a network of islands showed a lot of promise, but an awful lot more bugs, glitches and limitations. I had hoped, coming back after a good while, it would be a far more cohesive thing - it really isn't. And yet I've still ended up having fun pottering around.

Stranded Deep does not stray far from the standards of survival-me-do gaming. You've three meters - health, food, and water - and some basic provisions to begin staying alive in a super-fast day/night cycle. Beginning with a pocket knife, a lighter and a bottle of water, you paddle your inflated raft to the nearest patch of land, and begin scavenging. Islands provide wood, palm fronds, coconuts and crabs, along with binding materials from yukkas and the occasional potato plant. From this you can fudge together simple tools, fire pits, and even rudimentary shelters. But to get serious, you'll need to investigate the many wrecked boats that dot the region (a strange phenomenon, considering the calm waters and absence of any fantastical elements). Inside you'll gather less organic materials, like engines, fuel containers, duct tape and medicines. All these various bits and pieces can be combined in the game's still dreadful crafting, hopefully allowing you to stay alive long enough to find out if there's actually anything to live for.

It's just downright peculiar what's still not right here, though. You can now craft an outboard motor for a homemade raft, but you still can't make a fishing line. You can stab a great white shark to death, but you can't safely store items in your inflatable raft when paddling. There seems to have been a very misguided effort to focus on some big picture elements like a variety of biomes, before the absolute basics are in place.

Physics remain absolute bonkers. In order to craft, you ridiculously have to drop the items you might need to use in an enormous pile on the ground. Each stick, frond and rock has its own desire to obey the physics rules it's been given, and as a result these piles tend to be madly trembling framerate-eaters, ready to burst their contents in all directions at the slightest provocation. You too will be sent into mad spasms, or even forced to jump up and down on the spot, when - say - walking over a stick. Using fires becomes especially tricky when the game is determined to fling you onto it, rather than let you stand next to it. That's the sort of thing I'd like to be sorted before worrying about whether rain noises are appropriately muffled underwater.

Fires have other problems, too. They're a mess of bugs, whether it's the hopelessness of trying to balance an item to cook on an open fire, or a firepit complete with spit which decides to keep casting out the light of a fire, but to have no flames and no ability to be re-lit. (Saving, quitting, and reloading fixes this one - not a great way to play.) Even things as simple as correctly labeling items - surely the simplest fixes - haven't been done. It remains the case, as it was in January, that when you've drunk from a "drinkable coconut" (one you've removed from its husk, then cracked with a blade) it keeps that title, despite being empty. A tiny detail, but when you're playing, a really tiresome error.

For me, that issue with the inflatable rafts is the saddest. You have eight inventory slots, and the ability to hold four of the same thing in each. It sounds a decent amount, but it's very limiting. If you're holding water, food, your lighter, a machete and a hammer, then you've not much room to pick up any interesting finds on a nearby wreck. So the obvious solution is to drop things into your raft, and then sail them all back to base. Or, of course, when moving to a new island. But the moment you sail, the items try to stay in the same place, and eventually fall backward out or simply ping out of existence. It's such a bummer, as the idea of being able to carry my haul with me seems so appealing, as well as an important aspect of feeling a sense of belonging in the game world, but there appears to have been no effort made to make it work.

Crafting, as I mentioned, is daft. There's a good degree of sense to saying, "Here's all the stuff I need in this place," but in practice, when they're all jostling for their role in the physical world, and you're mostly incapable of moving across them when they're strewn about in the sand, it's a pain. Worse, the UI for the crafting relies on your already knowing what the required ingredients are, and the crafting button doesn't appear as an option until all ingredients are present. Which is utterly silly. It's like setting out to make a cake without a recipe, and only being able to mix them once you've correctly guessed at the right amounts of flour and eggs. If I know what is needed to make a shelter wall, why the hell can't I have access to this knowledge - and thus a notion of what I need to go collect - before everything's in one place?

The method is frustrating too. You long-left-click on your pile of debris, while remembering which tool to hold in your hand, and then pick from an awkwardly scrolling popping-up menu. I can see, again, the notion of realism that comes from directly interacting with the items you're using for crafting, but you can really see why the vast majority of survival games go for something like a book of recipes. It'd make things so much more fun if Stranded could adopt the method used by The Forest, for instance.

Yet, I've had a pleasant day trying to get established, dying of starvation because I couldn't figure out how to make a spit for the fire, starting over, fruitlessly starting work on a shelter on an island with about three trees, getting in a fight with a tiger shark, figuring out fire spits and cooking piles of crabs, and then making my way off to other islands...

At which point the game's greatest failing rears its head in the worst way. For presumably technology reasons, distant islands are all rendered exactly the same size and shape on the horizon, no matter their size and distance (and indeed no matter your graphics settings). Once you get close enough, they pop into reality, revealing that they're right next door or forever away, and half a mile long or a little blip. That's annoying, but you can cope... right up until it's time to head back home. Because now your base island is just a placemarker shape on the horizon which looks like everywhere else, and if you've become spun around at all, good bloody luck getting back there. The lack of a compass or sextant, as Salt superbly offers, means there's no hope of using coordinates or vague directions, and crushingly no chance of usefully mapping a region.

And oh, that makes me so sad. Because that's what keeps me from liking Stranded Deep. Sure, the idiotic bugs with the fires, the weird crafting, the way they've STILL not fixed the labelling of palm fronds from saying "log" once they're ready to be chopped up - you can get past all that even eight months after going into early access. But not being able to see where you're going, or how to get back to where you've been - that just breaks the whole thing for me. Developers Beam Team are being very open about their development, right down to letting you see their Trello page for bugs and balancing. But sadly none of the entries there convince me their priorities are at all in the right place for quickly fixing the simplest of frustrations, and working hard at solutions for the tougher ones. You can see that some of my concerns could one day be addressed in their less immediate Features board, but my complaint remains that this far in, the basics just aren't getting quickly tidied. With over half a million sales, you have to assume the resources are there to see it all happen. I really hope it does.

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