Note that while this game is still in Early Access and is not representative of the finished product, since I’m being charged for this I think it’s fair enough if I point and laugh at it a bit.
So, yet another survival game, but this time there aren’t any zombies, cannibals or zombie cannibals. Instead, your enemy is mother nature herself, time and – at this point in the game’s life – monotony. Search for food, water and building materials, but most of all search for rocks. Lots, and lots, of rocks.
First things first, though. Beam Team Games’ Stranded Deep is jaw-droppingly beautiful. From the sun glinting off the waves to the sea itself, full of plants, corral and poisonous sea urchins. The sun travels lazily through the sky, casting true shadows within a gorgeous day-night cycle, accompanied by a dynamic weather system whose grey clouds cast a gloomy, foreboding warning of storms to come. Scanning the horizon, you catch an alarming glimpse of a dorsal fin protruding from the waves. It’s a fantastic-looking game that evokes the same collective sigh of Earth Porn love we all gave when Far Cry first appeared, 11 (!) years ago.
If you play your survival games like I do, then your first run through the game will be a fuck-about, just to get to grips with the basics and kill yourself in amusing ways before you start your proper Lets-do-this-thing! go. Unfortunately, after about 3 hours you’ve seen everything the game has to offer and a second attempt doesn’t really feel necessary — at least until more content has been added.
The beginning of Stranded Jeep finds you sitting in a private jet flying somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. After fixing yourself a Martini from your private bar (inexplicably, this is the full extent of the crafting tutorial), there’s just time to get back to your seat before the shit hits the fan. The plane crashes, you spill your drink, survive, clamber into a life raft and pass out.
You come to on the shore of a tiny island, which is part of an archipelago of similar islands, each one having been procedurally generated and so spawning a different number of crafting materials on each playthrough. These include palm trees (for shelters and tools), potato plants (for eating — there are no procedural McDonald’s here), yukka plants (for lashing things together) and about 2-6 rocks (these are important). There will also be various shipwrecks dotted about sporting more valuable loot.
Bear Grylls always said you’ll be okay drinking your own piss, and that in a survival situation fire is your number one priority, so taking that on board I set about gathering logs together to make a basic camp fire to sit and drink pee by. Encouraged by my success building a fire, I thought it would be nice to cook one of the island’s plentiful crabs on it. Stranded Beep operates on an interesting physics system, wherein everything needs to be dragged into place and nudged up against everything else, and if all the right components are there, it magically glues them into the final product, be it a shelter, a camp fire, or a crab risotto. You press Q to drop items, or left-click to use them, but dropping a crab on the fire didn’t work — it landed in the flames, sizzled, then rolled into the dirt. It took a bit of fiddling around with a burning-hot crab, but eventually I worked out that you need to click-drag it into the fire. This may seem like a fairly simple mechanic, but it’s never once explained, or even included in the plane-based mixology class you engage in pre-crash. Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want a spoon-fed adventure, but I would like to be told the basic manoeuvres before being left alone to figure the rest out. And if you want some carbs to go with your seared crab, you can also eat the potato plants, but don’t bother trying to cook them as the world of Stranded Creep rather counter-intuitively demands that you eat them raw.
Fire sorted, I recalled Bear’s next bit of wisdom: protect yourself from the elements. I needed to build a shelter of some kind, and this would doubtless be made out of trees. After a while, the chopping of wood gets a little tedious. You chop down a palm tree, chop the trunk into logs, chop the logs into sticks and chop the head of the tree until all the palm fronds fall off. At first it’s kinda cool. It’s immersive and atmospheric, but soon all I could think was that if I had wanted a wood chopping simulator I’d have bought one of those tedious work-sim games from Excalibur Publishing. Chopping palm trees into toothpicks takes too much time, and most damningly of all, starts to feel like it’s using up your time just for the sake of using up your time.
Surrounded by dead palm tree, it was time to start my first major construction project. I can see what the devs were thinking when they devised their idea of crafting — that it should be an intuitive, logical process. Sticking with the stripped-back theme of you against nature, you don’t click to combine icons in a backpack, but instead chuck all your stuff on the floor and take the things you need from the pile. But this is where whole crafting system lets itself down, as you need to drop everything in a pile like a 4-year-old with a box of LEGO just to see what you can build in the first place. There’s no skill to it, and it ended up feeling clumsy and tedious, and I started wishing they’d taken more a Don’t Starve tab-based approach to materials management.
Something else you’re never told is that to build something significant like a shelter, you have to be holding the correct tool at all times. In this case, a hammer. It’s madness that something this important to the basic gameplay is not pointed out earlier on, or made clearer. Rafts need to be built, for example, while standing close to the water, but again you’ll most likely only find this out by accident. By hiding the essential crafting mechanics themselves, there are no Archimedean ‘Eureka!’ moments, and so the player is denied that awesome, smug feeling of having out-witted the game using just the simple commands it’s given you. It’s a sandpit with invisible buckets and nailed-down spades. Another essential gameplay element that is left unexplained is your watch, which tells you how hungry, thirsty or alive you are (it must be one of those new Apple Watches). I only found it by accidentally hitting the F key, a discovery which had me mashing my keyboard just in case there were other hidden treasures the game had forgotten to tell me about.
And now, onto my biggest issue: the lack of bastard rocks. You need rocks in Stranded Sheep like a junkie needs his fix. Examples of your rock-based addiction include:
1 x rock: crude axe
2x rocks: crude hammer
1 x rock (smashed): rock shards for a crude dagger or spear
6 x rocks: fire pit.
Unlike real life, tools fall apart over time (I’ve got a Black & Decker drill that’s lasted me about 15 years so far without needing repairs). So if you’re planning on sticking around, you’re going to need a plentiful amount of rocks. Once I’d used up the 4 rocks my starting island had graciously spawned for me, I started attacking (logically, I thought) the larger rock formations with my tools, hoping to break them into smaller rocks the same way smaller rocks break down into shards. At this stage of its development, there’s not a lot of feedback in Stranded Sweep, so there I was, smacking the shit out of this big rock, with no idea that I was doing less damage to it than a fart to a pair of trousers. (It’s the same thing with a coconut when you want to get at the precious Bounty Bars inside, you wail at it until the coconut magically opens). But no, you can only use rocks that are lying loose on the ground.
But I’ve seen almost all of Man vs. Wild, so I persevered and after some more grunting and flailing and a nice, warm cup of piss, I’d built myself a beach hut, got the camp fire going again and even made a basic bed (which unfortunately can’t be dragged inside your hut). By this point in your game, like me you’ll probably have exhausted all the resources of your first island, so the next step is to set off and explore the surrounding ones, either with the plane’s life raft (if it hasn’t glitched-out in the middle of the ocean), or the basic raft you crafted while remembering to hold all the tools in your hand and stand ankle-deep in the surf). Setting out to sea for the first time is a thrilling thing, and sets you up for one of Stranded Heap‘s most exciting perils (or so you’d think) — sharks! As they get closer to you, immersion-shattering Jaws-esque music suddenly bursts out (Hello? Suspense?). However, at the moment they’re more Roy Castle than Roy Scheider, and as long as you’re facing them and thrusting a pointy stick in their general direction, they’ll leave you alone. The best anti-shark weapon I’ve found so far is the axe (1 rock), which proved its worth when I awoke one morning to find two of the buggers strolling around my island (to be fair, they’d probably been raised by turtles and had returned to the sand to spawn).
Once I realised the sharks were friendly, I ventured into the ocean to investigate the plane’s debris and various shipwrecks, in search of tools, Martinis or maybe even a better tutorial. The wrecks of small fishing boats and larger vessels often contain hidden lockers and boxes, and while the tilted cabins and rotting hulls of the submerged wrecks look brilliant, daunting and dangerous, like everything else it starts to get a bit samey — once you’ve explored one, you’ve explored them all.
If it sounds like I’ve been moaning about the game, well, maybe I have been. But despite it all, at present it’s only the lack of anything meaningful that is really Stranded Deep‘s biggest problem. The game may have ‘deep’ in the title, but at this point of the Early Access, it’s anything but. There’s still much to hope for, though. I’ve read on the forums about people collecting parts to build motors, and about items that no one knows how to use yet, so we can only wonder what the implications are. Other survivors have reported seeing humpback whales once they’ve ventured further out to sea, and there’s even talk of another person, stranded out there somewhere.
Years ago, this would have been called a demo, letting you try out a never-ending loop of sleeping, waking, eating, drinking and fumbling about with crabs and rocks. All the potential is there to become a thoroughly brilliant game, but for now it’s a long way off. But I still want to play a Sim Castaway (it even has its own Wilson if you’re lucky enough to find him). Perhaps most importantly, even after all my ranting and raving I’m still happy that I bought it. I’m glad the devs have my money to help fund its completion, to give me that game I can see sailing towards me from far away. I’ve learnt how to struggle along as Robinson Crusoe, now let me Swiss Family Robinson it, not just surviving but thriving on these gorgeous islands (and if they could be a bit larger, a bit more diverse, that’d be ace too). I’m really looking forward to returning to my little island in the sun, but not just yet.
We’re not letting Mr. Bick off the island until the game is complete and he’s reviewed it again, so keep your eyes peeled. In the meantime, you can check out our impressions of Stranded Deep when it was Greenlit by the Steam community last year, or for similar Tom Hanks thrills, have a look at Castaway Stories too.