Subnautica

Not Recommended for Those With Thalassophobia.

Alma’s unsettling appearances in the first F.E.A.R. game. My decision to quit and never come back thanks to the constant aura of smothering terror in the P.T. Demo. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem trying to convince me that my TV was on the blink. All of these are examples of video games getting under my skin, giving me that sense of tingling anticipation that something truly horrible is about to happen. The three games mentioned above are pillars of horror in video games. Subnautica is not even classed as a horror game. It’s an open-world, survival-crafting experience with bright, cartoony graphics, but that first play-through was spent in an almost perpetual state of near-unbearable dread.

It might just be me, but it’s the open ocean that does it. Those endless, unknown depths. Those distant, unidentifiable sounds. That grasping, limitless, suffocating void filled with leviathans horrific beyond imagining just waiting to suck you into their inescapable, cavernous maws. Subnautica has its light-hearted moments, and is enjoyed by players of all ages, but if the idea of dangling alone in a pitch-black, watery abyss is as unappealing to you as it is to me, then this game will absolutely terrify you.

Enough about my weakness to water, though, let’s talk about the game. Subnautica is set on an uncharted planet known as 4546B, whose surface is almost entirely composed of a vast, deep ocean. When the spaceship you’re on crash-lands on this watery world, you find yourself stranded and alone with only the cold, computerised voice of your PDA assistant for company. The game will offer up a few hints and markers early on, but you’re pretty much on your own. It’s nice and safe in the floating escape pod that brought you to the planet, but those hunger and thirst meters are ticking down already, and hanging around there isn’t going to get you back home. It’s time to explore.

Once you get your bearings you’ll start to understand what you need to do to survive. Important tasks include hunting for edible fish, creating potable water, and scavenging for equipment to help you explore. You’re probably going to drown. A lot. It’s all too easy to get distracted while searching for resources, and end up misjudging how long it will take you to get back to that distant, glistening surface before your air supply runs out. However, search enough wreckage and harvest enough materials from the local flora and fauna, and you’ll soon be able to upgrade your equipment and leave the comfortable shallows, heading deeper and wider. Persevere, and you’ll discover that there are quite a few surprises out there.

Meet the Ghost Leviathan, one of the scary leviathan-class creatures. A few are harmless, but most just want to swallow you whole. The last aggressive leviathan you’ll meet is a little disappointing, though. A goofy-looking gator-squid. Shame.

Survival/crafting games don’t tend to put too much emphasis on the story, but Subnautica is very different in that regard. Through audio recordings and interesting discoveries, you’ll start to piece together a very interesting tale about the planet’s history and ecosystem, and will become embroiled in a surprisingly deep and involved mystery. As the plot threads unravel, new plans and blueprints will become available too ā€“ from more advanced air-tanks to a mighty submarine called the Cyclops, all of these gadgets help to let you go deeper and deeper into the abyss, where you’ll finally get to the bottom of the compelling mystery.

Another thing that you can do to help keep yourself alive is build an underwater base (or a series of bases), where you can craft, plan, or just take a breather in relative safety. As long as you keep your base powered, you won’t run out of oxygen, and you can build such helpful devices as battery chargers, storage containers and water purifiers. These bases have a nice, clean, futuristic aesthetic, to which you can add decorative items such as beds, plant-pots, and even aquariums, and if this building aspect really appeals to you, there is a ā€œcreative modeā€ in which you can work on huge, underwater complexes with no restrictions.

Its cool and everything, and constructing a vast, aquatic utopia is an interesting aspiration, but Subnautica is really about the moments. That moment when you swim out into the open ocean and the sea floor drops off into an abyssal trench, and you hear a shrieking, haunting cry out in the murky blue. That moment when you go to a new biome for the first time and the PDA voice informs you that you’re in the migratory path of leviathan-class lifeforms. That moment when you’re exploring in your compact submersible and a dreaded Reaper Leviathan appears from nowhere, grabs your craft and shakes it around like a dog with a chew toy. That moment when you realise that maybe you weren’t the first sentient being to splash down on this planet after all…

Subnautica is absolutely packed to the gills with memorable and awe-inspiring experiences. Most of them invoke negative feelings like loneliness, isolation and dread, but there is wonder too, and a real sense of adventure and discovery. When I finally finished the game and was given the opportunity to leave the planet behind, despite feeling unease and anxiety for practically my entire adventure, I suddenly didn’t want to go. When it was finally time to escape the terrifying deep, I found that I didn’t want to leave this beautifully dangerous world behind. I think they call it Stockholm syndrome.

Played on PS4

Dragon Quest Builders 2

Dragons, Quests, and Builders, Too!

You’d be forgiven for taking one look at the blocky visuals of Dragon Quest Builders and rolling your eyes at the thought of a Square Enix helmed cash-in on Minecraft’s success. However, while clearly taking cues from the cuboid phenomenon, this is much more than just an Akira Toriyama-themed skin pack. Personally, I came into Dragon Quest Builders 2 with relatively little experience in the Dragon Quest series. I nearly finished Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, and finished Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age, and haven’t played any other games in the series’ extensive back catalogue. Despite their wordy titles, though, I enjoyed both games immensely. As for Minecraft, my experience there is almost non-existent. I’ve tried it once or twice, but always found myself unable to get motivated to build for the sake of building in the open-ended, low-res world. I found myself getting much more involved with the 2D building of Terraria, thanks to its progression, bosses and neat graphical style.

Dragon Quest Builders 2 obviously borrows visually and stylistically from Minecraft, but does even more than Terraria did when it comes to adding focus to the sandbox. It features a lengthy quest that sets it apart from more open-ended survival/builders and a story line that, while fairly basic thanks to a silent protagonist, throws up its fair share of twists and turns. The ongoing relationship between the player-created character and his or her amnesiac companion Malroth is often interesting and occasionally moving, and the vibe can shift from upbeat and irreverent to surprisingly foreboding or hauntingly melancholy at a moments’ notice. Observant, old-school Dragon Quest fans may also recognise the name Malroth from Dragon Quest II, and will already have an inkling that there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye. The story chugs along nicely and, despite some slow sections, concludes in satisfying fashion, too.

The quest is split into numerous distinct parts, set on different islands in a vast, unknown sea. While undertaking the story missions on these islands, you won’t be able to leave them. Upon completing that part of the quest, however, you’re free to go back and forth between your home base (known as the Isle of Awakening) and almost any island you’ve already completed. Once you go to a new area and get stuck into the next story mission, you’re locked in again. The split nature of the world allows you to keep different projects handily separated, but can result in frustration later on when you find yourself spending far too much time propositioning the quirky Captain Brownbeard to take you from island to island, and experiencing the loading screens that are part of the deal.

There are also island types known as “Explorers’ Shores”. These randomly generated holms, cays and skerries offer up enjoyable orienteering activities in which players can unlock infinite reserves of certain resource types. You can also find optional boss fights, pick up various villagers and helpful NPCs to take back to the Isle of Awakening, and gather handy resources that you won’t find anywhere else. Don’t bother building anything, though, as the place will be swallowed by the ocean mists when you leave, never to be seen again.

Farming forms a very large part of the early game. See that hat-wearing worm in the background, there? He’s indispensable for growing crops. He was also raised in the deepest wilds of rural Dorset, if his dialogue is anything to go by.

Each main island will teach you different aspects of the building, survival and management elements of the game. The first island introduces you to farming and meeting your villagers’ basic needs, the second area demonstrates mining and entertainment, and so on. Complete the main quest and you’ll be armed with the knowledge to build the fantasy metropolis of your dreams back at the Isle of Awakening once the post-game opens up.

Nearly. The game keeps a lot from you, and completionists looking for all the items, cooking recipes and room types on offer will have a gigantes-sized task on their hands. The story quests will only tell you so much, the rest needs to be uncovered by following NPC hints or through a bit of good old trial and error. This is welcome, as it gives the game a wealth of content for enthusiastic builders to uncover long after the end credits have rolled. However, the game’s obliqueness can occasionally go too far, and frustrating occurrences are a little too common. Room-types not registering with no clear indication as to why, villagers ignoring your newly built facilities with no visible explanation, and a lack of clarity when determining how far out into the map you can expand your settlement are all examples of problems I encountered. All of these are understandable limits, but it would have been nice if the game attempted to explain them a bit.

Combat is basic. Swing your sword until the enemy dies, occasionally pausing to dodge obviously telegraphed power attacks. Level up and craft better swords to hit harder. That’s pretty much it. Combat isn’t the focus here, despite there being plenty of it, but variety is injected through the use of companions. Throughout most of the game you’ll be accompanied by Malroth, and you can rely on him in a lot of the battles. There will also be occasions when your party grows to four or more, and later on whole armies can be thrown into battle at your behest, though I never used this feature outside of the story mission that introduced it. While visiting the aforementioned Explorers’ Shores, you can choose up to three companions to take with you, and this adventuring party can eventually include tamed monsters. These monsters add another wrinkle to the resource-gathering, combat and exploration aspects of the game, as many of them can be ridden and used in various helpful roles.

I’ve not played the first Dragon Quest Builders game, but from a little bit of research it seems that the sequel added such a wealth of gameplay tweaks and quality of life changes that I’ll probably leave it unexplored. Having said that, I did read somewhere that Dragon Quest Builders has a double jump. Dragon Quest Builders 2 could really do with a double jump…

We can forgive it, though, because Dragon Quest Builders 2 is a thoroughly charming, content-rich and surprisingly deep game. Bright, fascinating and bizarrely pun-obsessed, the building gameplay mixes perfectly with the questing, and for the most part the balance between hand-holding and letting you do your own thing is weighed perfectly. Despite enjoying previous Dragon Quest titles, I partially dismissed Dragon Quest Builders 2 as a cash-in on the popularity of Minecraft that was squarely aimed at kids. An opportunity came to play it (it was a gift for my daughter) and I was quickly enlightened to the fact that, while both of those things are true, this is still an excellent game that will keep you coming back again and again. I want more of it, despite it having a 50+ hour campaign and near endless post-game content, and that’s a sign that something is definitely working. As far as Dragon Quest spin-offs go, this one’s built for success.

Played on Nintendo Switch

Immortals: Fenyx Rising

It’s All Greek to Me

I went into Immortals: Fenyx Rising knowing the Ubisoft open-world games only by their reputation. The likes of Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs and Far Cry all represent gaps in my otherwise extensive gaming knowledge, and this dive into a bright and breezy imagining of ancient Greece is my first contact with Ubisoft’s house-style. It’s an outlier; a title that risked a visual style that doesn’t tick all the triple-A action game boxes. You could almost call it unique, but Nintendo would have something to say about that ā€“ there’s a certain breath of the wild about it that cannot be denied.

Before we get into all that, though, the first thing to note about Immortals: Fenyx Rising is how pretty it is. The art style is bright and abundant, with attractive, expressive characters, spectacular sky-boxes and lush vegetation. The content is similarly bright and breezy for the most part. Far from a stuffy retelling of the classics, Immortals treats Greek mythology like a Saturday morning cartoon, albeit a surprisingly accurate one. It’s far more rooted in the actual subject matter than Disney’s Hercules, for example, and even uses the less-popular Greek spellings of familiar names like Hephiastos and Herakles.

Many of the jokes rely on the player having a decent knowledge of the subject matter. If, like me, your knowledge of Greek mythology is somewhat limited, you may find that some of the quips go over your head. I remember enough to know that things can get messed up, though. Immortals leans into this in a humorous way, slyly referencing the murder, cannibalism and incest while keeping things family friendly, on the surface at least. Almost every scene is treated with a tongue-in-cheek approach, and the pantheon rarely receives the dignity it deserves. War god Ares, for example, is initially found in the body of a chicken, with all of his gusto and confidence drained away. He also has a bit of a thing for Aphrodite, but then, don’t we all.

The world of Immortals is beautiful, but artificial. Landmasses poke out of the sea at odd heights, suspended on sheer cliffs whose only purpose is to hinder exploration until the player earns stamina upgrades. Plateaus jut haphazardly, inhabited by token packs of boars or bears, vast temple complexes are built across areas where no regular human could easily reach them. Villages and ruins are situated and laid out in a way that serves the purpose of the nearby puzzle, but gives no indication of a living, breathing world. Immortals eschews any concept of world-building and immersion in favour of a game map that serves the gameplay only.

Use Icarus’ wings to soar around the map. Don’t stray too close to Helios, though.

Said gameplay consists of exploration, combat and puzzle-solving. The exploration is satisfying, but would be more rewarding if the world was more alive. The combat is swift but fairly standard. Elite enemies can give players a hard time early on, but things get easier as more moves and abilities are earned. The puzzle-solving comes in a few different flavours, ranging from sliding fresco puzzles to lighting torches in the correct order to open a door. The world is dotted with Gates of Tartaros, portals to ruined structures suspended in an interstellar void. These areas contain some of the game’s most devious puzzles, and it’s most valuable treasures.

The Gates of Tartaros bear a striking resemblance to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s shrines. Spread out across the map, containing challenges or arena battles, and walls that our hero can’t climb. They’re not the only similarity to Link’s most expansive adventure, either. Immortals’ player character Fenyx (customised by the player with a limited character creator), has many of the same skills and equipment as Link, or at least close equivalents. Expect to glide around the map once a certain item is acquired, shoot arrows, and lift heavy blocks using an ability not dissimilar to telekinesis. Luckily, though, Fenyx’s weapons don’t break.

It’s derivative of Breath of the Wild (and probably Ubisoft’s other games, I really wouldn’t know), the Gates of Tartaros challenges can slide into the frustratingly fiddly, and the world doesn’t quite feel authentic, but this is a fun and exceptionally nice-looking game. The act of traversing the world is satisfying, the voice acting is on point, and the dialogue should raise a few smirks (though not every gag is a home run). Immortals: Fenyx Rising’s myth probably won’t live on through the ages, and it’s no titan of the industry, but it’ll definitely keep you entertained for a week or so. I’d call that heroic, at the very least.

Played on PS4