Stranded Deep Review
Stranded Deep, originally released in Early Access on PC in 2015, has brought its island-hopping survival experience to consoles. It’s an addictive and enjoyable experience, but one that still feels several steps away from greatness.
The game, like many others in the genre, drops you on a deserted island and requires you to craft, explore, and survive, while hopefully advancing the barebones plot. That plot is essentially that you’ve survived a plane crash over a series of equidistant islands, and that there’s some way to escape. The game actually doesn’t indicate that there’s a way to complete it to the player, although through exploration, you’ll eventually find the end goal, the wreckage of a massive ship that houses a plane that can be stocked and repaired to get you back to civilization.
A basic tutorial will get you familiar with how to craft, hunt and cook food, and sleep and save your game. There’s really nothing else that will point you in the right direction after that until you find either your escape plane or run into one of the sea monster bosses that are inexplicably holding the schematics to the missing parts of the plane. This isn’t to say that the lack of plot is necessarily a bad thing, as it really is exciting to see something other than the two standard island types, and it fuels further exploration.
The basic rhythm of the game is to to take care of your food and water needs, ensure that you have a tool to gather resources, and then to set off in your life raft in pursuit of said resources. The other islands you’ll find unfortunately only come in one of two flavors. They’re either flat, similar to the one you start on, or have a tall rock formation and tall trees. The tall tree islands are home to new wildlife, like snakes (more about them later) and boars, and will also feature lean-tos constructed by survivors who have long since passed, but otherwise feature the same basic resources as any other island. Each island will have its own set of shipwrecks to explore that will contain items to construct rafts, crates full of supplies, and generally things you couldn’t otherwise craft on your own. You’ll bring those items back to wherever you call home and repeat the process all over again.
It’s a satisfying rhythm to get into, particularly as you find an item that allows you to build a new type of crafting station, or build your raft. Creating a raft isn’t strictly necessary to explore, but once you’re travelling to islands that aren’t immediately adjacent to your own, you’ll want to be sailing on something other than the life raft, which requires you to paddle. This cycle can be interrupted, though, by the creatures capable of giving you a malady. Sharks can flip your raft and bite you, causing bleeding, and the aforementioned snakes can poison you, which feels like the most unbalanced status effect in the game. You can cure poison with the Pipi plant, which is one of the more rare herbs growing on the islands. While I’ve heard that the PC version changed things to only require one plant to craft an antidote, the console version still requires two, so if you get poisoned by a snake, or even by something you might not see in the ocean, all bets are off as you sail from island to island, searching for this plant. Eventually, you can craft farm plots and grow your own over the course of many days, but in the early goings, being poisoned feels like a death sentence. This is what eventually led me to scrap my first playthrough and reassess the way I was playing, and I now hoard those plants as the most valuable resource available.
While playstyle can overcome issues like poison, there are some truly bizarre design choices and polish issues that will just be a fact of life during your time on the islands. It’s a good thing I don’t play with inverted controls, because there’s no option to change them. In 2020, this is inexcusable and likely game-breaking for many. There’s also an odd auto-walk function that activates by flicking the left stick forward. It’s something that serves only as an annoyance, and doesn’t have a practical purpose in the game. The polish comes in when you want to do something like climb on to your raft. The prompt to climb almost feels random, and when it’s not there, you might jump into the air and end up under your raft, or you might climb in perfectly, it’s hard to tell. While it’s a minor annoyance a lot of the time, it can become deadly if you’re scrambling to get in your raft with a shark on your tail.
These issues make the game feel like it’s still in Early Access, but despite them, it still succeeds. The plant textures are muddy up close, but looking at your island, lit up by a campfire, is truly beautiful. The water looks great, and sailing to an island with a sunrise or sunset is a calming experience. Once you get into the swing of things, you can be set up on a new island with fresh water, food, and a place to sleep within minutes, and efficiently setting up a new outpost feels good. If you’re into customization, you can build yourself a house, and add homey touches like tables and chairs, although after playing with the mechanic a bit, I found I’d rather save my resources for the three boss fights of the game, that lead you down the path to your escape.
These boss fights can feel a bit unbalanced when compared to the rest of the enemies in the game (24 speargun shots is a lot!) but going into battle against these massive sea creatures is tense and thrilling. Stranded Deep knows how to switch from an idyllic sail across the ocean to a terrifying boss fight, and does it well. Even seeing the marker for a boss, which might be a buoy or a shipwreck, feels so different than the usual island, that it completely changes the tone of the game, and really adds some excitement and purpose.
You can really play Stranded Deep the way you want, and make it about surviving for as long as possible and building an island paradise or a massive pirate ship, but some resources are finite, and I think most people will be motivated to escape the dangerous ocean. While I don’t think it’s as difficult to survive as it is in a game like The Long Dark, there’s no handholding and it certainly won’t be as much of a breeze as something like Minecraft. Each new item you craft builds to something and will really push you toward completing the story. I’ve certainly outlined some issues, but the frame of the game is solid. Some extra island types, objectives, and graphical enhancements could really push it over the top, so I’ll be anxiously awaiting any word on a sequel and am happy with my time spent with the game. If you’re a survival buff, Stranded Deep is worth adding to your repertoire and is ripe for self-imposed challenges to mix things up on subsequent playthroughs. Enjoy, and don’t get poisoned.