One of the very best survival titles currently available on any platform, Subnautica is a hugely immersive underwater epic that combines survival, crafting, open world exploration and an intriguing narrative to truly spectacular effect. It’s one of our all-time favourite games and so, when we heard that both the original and it’s highly anticipated sequel, Subnautica: Below Zero, were headed to Switch, we were understandably delighted. However, it was delight tempered with a certain degree of scepticism as to how developer Unknown Worlds could possibly cram these enormous experiences onto Nintendo’s dinky little hybrid console in a properly playable manner. Thankfully, it turns out, we needn’t have worried.
We’re not exactly sure what kind of secret underwater alien technology Unknown Worlds has employed in its porting process here, but both Subnautica and its sequel on Switch feel like nothing short of a minor miracle. Beyond the now expected lowering of textures and graphical bells and whistles across the board – and some asset pop-in that we’ve actually also experienced whilst playing this one on PC and PS4 – this is one of the all-time great survival experiences, and its excellent sequel, looking and running spectacularly well on a handheld gaming device.
Subnautica really is one the great indie early access success stories, a game that’s been honed to near perfection over a long gestation period on PC, with lots of input from avid fans helping to shape the core experience as it exists today. It’s a constantly thrilling marriage of fiendishly addictive gameplay loops, with hugely satisfying crafting and base building, well-implemented survival mechanics and a world and story that absolutely ooze wonder, mystery and full-on existential dread in equal measure.
Kicking off with your silent protagonist crash-landing on the alien planet 4546B, Subnautica immediately throws you into this heady mix as you fight to extinguish a fire aboard your tiny little escape pod before getting your bearings and coming to the realisation that you need medical aid, sustenance and an explanation as to what’s just happened. Climbing the steps up and out of your pod for the very first time, you’re greeted by an endless ocean stretching out on all sides, with the enormous burning remains of your mothership, the Aurora, the only structure visible in any direction.
From here, Subnautica expertly delivers tantalising little nuggets of its sci-fi narrative, providing just enough intrigue to drive you forward as you get to grips with its excellent crafting and survival mechanics. You’ll immediately need to dive right into the vast ocean below your pod if you want to live, get to gathering food, water sources and the vital materials necessary to put together your very first life-saving tools. Early doors you’ll craft a basic scanner to survey and document the various alien flora and fauna you come across, alongside a torch, survival knife and repair tool, but then the game gradually starts spitting out the really good stuff; it’s this constant, addictive drip-feed of tantalising tech, alongside some of the most immersive exploration we’ve experienced in a game, that keeps you hooked in for the long-term.
As your tech tree expands, as you search, discover, mine, scan and build, you’ll begin to get a proper grip on this huge and hostile environment. Construction of a nifty Seaglide enables you to spin around the depths at speed, high capacity oxygen tanks prolong the time you can spend exploring and gathering in the game’s spectacular biomes and, eventually, you’ll even craft your very own submersible Seamoth vehicle, enabling you to explore the darkest depths of this alien abyss at a more leisurely pace. Maybe you’ll also choose to spend hours building huge deep sea bases with the game’s comprehensive habitat builder, providing yourself with alternative living accommodation to the cramped lifepod in which you start your journey.
There’s an absolute ton of craftable tech and building components to discover here that expand and evolve cleverly as you progress, enabling you to search ever further and deeper. That said, we really don’t want to spoil too much about the unlockable gadgets or the story, as just uncovering it all for yourself is where the real magic of Subnautica lies.
This is such a wonderfully well-realised world too, remarkably beautiful at times with a diverse range of biomes to slowly and methodically discover – it can also be truly and utterly terrifying. This game digs its hooks into our most basic, primal fears of the ocean, of drowning, of getting lost in treacherous underwater caverns or succumbing to some great monstrosity in the deepest, darkest depths. There is as much horror here as there is sci-fi. You’ll find yourself sneaking past great leviathans, holding your breath and turning off the lights on your submersible as you attempt to pass silently, or panicking as you lose your bearings in a cave with an almost empty oxygen supply…it’s nerve-wracking stuff.
On the flip side of this, it also somehow manages to be one of the most chill games we’ve ever played, absolutely devouring our time as we mine for materials to build bases and upgrades, explore great neon reefs and spin endlessly around in search of more secrets, treasures and tech. Just filling in your PDA as you scan every creature and coral you come across here is a full time occupation and you can absolutely expect to spend triple digits of hours if you’re looking to see most of what this engrossing world has to offer.
Where Subnautica’s narrative is always an intriguing aside to its core gameplay, doing just enough to keep you interested in advancing its tale along, follow-up Below Zero decides to double down on the story aspect of proceedings, introducing a fully voice-acted protagonist, a handful of cutscenes, audio logs, collectible PDAs and so on. We were initially concerned that this greater focus on story elements could derail things, and it definitely does take away from the feeling of relentless isolation that we so loved about its predecessor, but the series’ winning combination of survival, exploration and crafting gameplay shines through here, making for another helping of absolutely top-notch survival shenanigans.
In Below Zero you’re once again back on 4546B, crash-landing rather spectacularly on the frozen far side of the planet this time around, where you’re immediately thrown into a situation every bit as fraught as its predecessor in an attempt to get to the bottom of what happened to your character’s sister, Sam. It may have a slightly smaller map (this was originally planned as a generous dollop of DLC after all) and a little less variety in its biomes, but this still feels like an essential experience, one that delivers more of the same whilst also smoothing some of the rough edges of its predecessor’s core gameplay loops.
Everything feels that little bit easier to manage in Below Zero, you’ll get off the starting blocks quicker and get to spinning around on your Seaglide in no time, before getting your hands on a bunch of brand new vehicles that, by and large, improve upon those found in Subnautica. The story here too, even though – as we said – we definitely prefer the total isolation of the original, manages to throw up some cool surprises along the way and, vitally, doesn’t make the mistake of getting in the way of your endless crafting, exploring and building. The biomes here may well be a little smaller and less diverse but they’re still amazingly atmospheric and compelling to explore, stuffed full of flora, fauna and hidden technology to find, scan and put to good use.
In fact, if Below Zero does make one major error for us, it’s in its decision to expand upon the very brief on-foot sections found in its predecessor. There’s far more of it here, wandering around the hostile arctic tundra, and although it’s never particularly bad – there’s always plenty to find (and flee from) in these portions of the game – it’s just not where Subnautica really excels, and we always wanted to be back in the water as soon as we were dragged out of it. There’s also not quite the same scale and scope in the tech tree here, which is understandable given its origin as DLC; if we had to choose, if we were buying one or the other separately instead of grabbing this double pack, we’d definitely go with the original Subnautica as it still feels like the definitive version of this experience between the two.
However, whether you choose to grab both or go with one over the other, what is absolutely certain here is that you’re in for one of the very best survival experiences around. We still really can’t quite believe that Subnautica has made it onto Switch in such fine style. This is the full fat experience, a gloriously addictive, wondrous, terrifying feast of underwater exploration, survival and crafting now available to play portably. It’s definitely seen a graphical downgrade, there’s the odd split second hiccup here and there as you venture into a new area, and that good old pop-in is still present and correct in this version but, overall, this port is way beyond anything we ever expected. If you’re a fan of survival games this double pack is a no-brainer, if not, we still reckon you should dive right in as this is a pretty much essential experience.
This post originally appeared on Nintendo Life | Reviews