Survival-crafting games are here to stay, that’s pretty much a given, but the form each individual game takes is what makes or breaks them. Typically there’s not much in the way of story playing out in one of these titles, so any that try it have a head start; and that’s where Stranded: Alien Dawn sets out its stall. Not content with simply saying “do this, ‘cos fo’“, there’s purpose behind the mission and with it comes the hope that it leads to a depth of gameplay that will keep you enthralled for hours. A good start then finding a chink in the armour of player’s interest to work away at widening, but does it manage to build a solid base for protection and growth, or manage to get itself munched by the local fauna?
With three scenarios to tackle – Crash Landing, Trading Outpost or Military Outpost – Stranded: Alien Dawn actually tasks you with quite varying objectives depending on which you select. Crash Landing is probably the one that most will start with, and feels like the core survival experience where your shuttle plummets to the surface of an inhabitable moon and you’re left with a handful of crew and limited supplies in the wreckage (hence the entire story setup and reason for having to scrabble in the dirt for rocks and chop down trees to construct with). Using your wits and abilities to observe, gather and defend, you’ll grow a small camp that will keep your little band alive, before realising there’s more going on across the surface than is visible in your tiny clearing. The story drops in objectives and surprises occasionally to direct the flow of the game, and before too long you’ll be heading out on expeditions to find other survivors and continually restock your dwindling supplies. Fate has a decent sized hand in your pot of destiny and a bad landing site can prove fatal as you slowly starve and freeze to death… then again, it might be an idyllic vacation spot where you’re happy to live off the land and await rescue. Whatever adventure there is in store, it will be different with each new game loaded, and crucially, it’s pacey enough that you feel the urge to try again if things go south without worrying about redoing the same things over again.
Of course, there’s a fairly consistent gameplay loop that you’ll cycle through each time you start a new scenario: setup a shelter, assign storage space, get a fire going; though after that it is generally dependent on the terrain and objective to guide how similar the activities are to what you’ve done before. Setting up a trading post is vastly different from being in a combat zone and trying to dig in to establish a military outpost, and tactics are needed to be switched up quite regularly. With the available survivors typically ranging from 3 to 6 depending on the scenario, and with countless message pings hitting your HUD, it’s essential that they’re autonomous. Your role is to orchestrate the hunting, gathering and building, and as long as you’re asking for something sensible the team will carry it out as quickly as they can. It’s slightly odd to begin with to see one character start a task and another finish it, yet it makes a lot of sense pretty quickly, and if you really don’t like shared accountabilities you’re able to edit who can perform which task. The only element that needs a lot of manual control is combat, and it’s not really the smoothest if I’m honest. You “draft” an NPC, point them in a direction of an enemy and tell them to attack. Whether they do it or not can be a bit hit and miss (like the fighting), and it’s sometimes frustrating that they could use a ranged attack instead of running in and getting swarmed. Better stick to lower difficulties if you don’t want gravestones littering your settlement.
All interactions are managed through hidden OSD options that pop up at the press of a direction button, and there’s no hiding that Stranded: Alien Dawn likes a menu or three, as well as small scale icons and data to read. It can be a little cluttered and daunting until you find your comfort level, and that’s what I really liked about the interface. It is up to you how engaged you get with it. If you want to take a light touch approach it’s possible to do that as long as you set the relevant easy game settings before creating the world, including the chance to activate special perks that buff the survivors. Allowing for this means that minutiae can be largely left to manage itself whilst you concentrate on the bigger picture. Conversely, if you prefer to get into the nuances of roles, responsibility, sleep cycles, shelf life of stored food, and more; you can. Whatever depth of control you go for you’ll still have to place objects and build structures, and it all works as you’d expect when dropping things in grids. You won’t be creating modern architectural masterpieces – you’re surviving on an alien world, what do you expect?! – but you’ll be putting your stamp on a colony as it’s taking formation. Spend time researching to expand your knowledge whilst at the same time discovering minerals and ores, and you’ll be able to get much more sophisticated with the camp, adding electricity, defences and means of transport.
Selling you on life abandoned on a strange planet isn’t an easy task and Haemimont have done a decent job with the art design and the way the worlds are seeded. It’s familiar enough to not throw you, but strange in a way that draws you in for a closer look. There are multiple biomes and different moons to experience, though they do blend slightly across a couple of them. The maps are a good size too. The first time you head out to take a gander it’s quite easy to get lost and have to search for base camp. I can’t profess that it’s gorgeous to behold at all times, and it has the odd framerate stumble as well. Stranded: Alien Dawn does enough to look the part, but I can’t help but think it needs something a little extra. Sound also falls into this category and…err yeah… it’s there. Controls are reasonably solid, though there’s a constant need to move cursors around to side bars, particularly whenever managing the survivors, and these are invisible until you tap them. Numerous times I’ve been clicking on objects to interact and instinctively click an action, only to have the whole menu disappear because I’d not activated the cursor. This is likely a hold over from a mouse/keyboard setup, and whilst I don’t know what could be done to make it a little more fluid, it would definitely be appreciated. As would a tutorial section that doesn’t block progress due to a character not recognising they’ve equipped a pistol.
Regardless of any issues I encounter in this style of crafting/survival sim – they are complex, and that brings a certain level of accepted jank – my measure of enjoyment is always based on the temperature of the cup of tea on the table next to the sofa when I finish playing. Stranded: Alien Dawn left me with a stone cold cuppa. It’s been a while since I’ve lost the passage of time that I did with this game, and 3 hours in my first session felt like 20 mins. That in itself speaks volumes about how engaging the overarching story is, the systems it has in place to create, and the level of exploration and reward you find. It is as easy or hard as you make it; as streamlined or as complex; and that level of choice means it’s accessible to a wider range of players than a survival game sometimes is. It’s main crime is that it makes you feel overconfident about your chances of living through a crash on a strange world, and being able to build a fridge to keep giant insect carcasses fresher for longer.
A PS5 review copy of Stranded: Alien Dawn was provided by Haemimont Games PR team, and the game is available now on PlayStation, Xbox and PC for around £30.
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