Continuing with our Early Access Checkup series I’ll be taking a second look at Stranded Deep, which we first covered in a first impression video here.
Similarly to last week’s entry, Stranded Deep falls into the open world survival sandbox category. The genre has been popular for the last couple years, and many of the developers have gone the Early Access route. It’s not too surprising, really, because it works well for a sandbox: you only need your engine, main mechanics, and part of the world to start off, and then you can add more content as you build. Developer updates happen alongside player progress, hopefully giving them a little something new just as they think they’ve seen and done everything.
At first glance, much of what Stranded Deep offers is impressive, if unpolished, a diamond in the rough. Many of the visuals are nothing short of beautiful, giving the player a sense of really being stranded and struggling to survive despite being surrounded by tropical paradise. Worth special mention is the lighting, whether moonlight or sunrise, and the water itself. The latter goes a bit beyond mere graphics, as the ocean actually has a rising and falling surface like the real open sea. When paddling or sailing between small islands, the player’s raft will pitch and sway with these swells, enough to imagine the character getting a bit seasick or even capsize your vessel in some cases.
The game also offers some interesting touches and innovations in terms of how it approaches its survival mechanics, which are definitely on the hardcore side of things. Health and time info are accessed by looking at your watch, rather than through the UI. Crafting can be done with items on the ground around you rather than just in your inventory. You can climb trees, pick coconuts, and then puncture and drink from them. While most of the crafting options are standard fare like stone axes and spears, shelters and campfires, you can also build houses with snapping segments and a variety of different boats.
These watercraft highlight the focus of the game, allowing more rapid exploration of the many small islands near the player’s plane crash (this is another game that starts a lot like Castaway or Lost). Aside from the islands themselves, the player can locate shipwrecks and a few old structures in the style of WW2-era sea forts, which can be explored for lockers that may have non-craftable items like flare guns or diving equipment. The maps are procedurally generated, although when you start your game you have the option to drag custom cells onto the grid of random islands (there was only one dev-created custom cell available).
Stranded Deep has been in Early Access since January last year, giving it close to a year and a half of development since it went public. It’s on its 12th main version with hotfixes for most main patches as well, which makes for a slower pace of updates than some games but at least steady development. However, while the patches have added some new content, most of it is cosmetic (various weather effects) or limited to a handful of sea creatures (whales, sharks, and fish) and a few background critters like bats and seagulls added in the most recent patch. The developers also claim they’ve added a complex and highly realistic temperature simulator, and while I believe them, this is rather opaque to the player; weather is going to look random more or less regardless of how you generate it behind the scenes.
This gets at the problem I have with Stranded Deep. It’s a risk in a realism simulator that you can focus so much on perfecting these little details that you can forget to actually make a game. The basic mechanics are mostly solid, and the game’s environment is impressive, but there’s not a lot else going on. The most basic survival-related crafting can be done in the first hour (and in game day or two) of gameplay: building an axe and spear, making a shelter, fire, and a water collector.
Everything else is open-ended exploration and looting of wrecks, and while the procedural maps technically make the possibilities endless, it all starts to be more of the same. Crafting falls into some of the same traps. Sure, you can build a magnificent island mansion, given enough time going through the tedious process of chopping wood, but why would you want to? It takes around 100 hits with your basic stone axe to chop down and fully break up a palm tree into usable parts, and that tree might handle 3-4 wall or floor sections. Plus, it serves no purpose in game, as unlike many other sandboxes, there are no zombies, monsters, cannibals, or other creepy things to fend off. It’s building for building’s sake, but there are building-focused games with more options and less tedium if that’s your interest.
Stranded Deep ultimately falls into the ’empty sandbox’ trap. It’s big and beautiful but you really are limited by your ability to entertain yourself. With its content-thin patch schedule (even in a procedural game, they should be adding new random elements), it’s hard to imagine sinking a lot of time into it unless you’re absolutely in love with the environment. There is also plenty of polishing that still needs to be done: I saw shadow glitches, weirdly positioned logs, buggy non-lootable chests and ships that you can get trapped in. Absent new content, they should at least focus on smoothing their presentation, as well as streamlining core gameplay so that survival feels intense more than it does a chore.