Swimming Lessons: First Dive UNDER THE OCEANA column article by: Jon Dantzler
The indie scene certainly has its conventions: side-scrolling platformers, quirky art styles, low prices and impossibly weird titles. The survival genre is a dominant theme amongst these games. Say what you want about Notch or some of the recent updates, but the beast that Mojang built really opened up the floodgates for sandbox-style, craft and building-centric survival yarns. So much, in fact, that the genre sometimes feels a bit over-saturated, making it tough for new entries to stand out amongst the crowd.
Under the Ocean – just such a game from people who are not exactly newcomers – thankfully makes a valiant effort at distinction. The game does follow the Minecraft tradition of crafting, building and survival, but shakes it up with an amazing art style, impeccable atmosphere and a cool physics system. Currently in alpha, Under the Ocean is in the hands of four dudes, one of whom – Paul Greasley – developed its prequel, Under the Garden. As Under the Garden was developed on strict deadline, Under the Ocean is a more ambitious and complex game than its predecessor.
Under the Ocean literally drops you in the ocean – under it, coincidentally – at the site of a shipwreck near the shore. Your have no story, only a goal: survive. Despite its alpha status, the game’s atmosphere is already pretty on point. Bright colors and surreal music are juxtaposed against a feeling of total isolation, save for the chickens and crabs roaming the island.
And survival in Under the Ocean is a pretty complex process. The somewhat surreal tone is nicely juxtaposed with the very immediate needs of your character, which drive the “survival” aspect of the game. Is your character hungry? Thirsty? Chilly? Bleeding? Really bleeding? All of his miscellaneous discomforts are represented by little meters on the screen, and it can be a real challenge to keep them all in check. A rather unique point of Under the Ocean is how much these needs matter compared to other survival games and how carefully they must be maintained. Hunting for food and water are just as important as the cool house you’re building.
But of course, like any good survival game, Under the Ocean does encourage you to build. Your new island home is littered with the usual supplies: random boxes, pieces of lumber, trees, rocks and the like. The possibilities are pretty strong and complemented by a construction editor that sort of works like Photoshop with its layer-based system (for those not interested in survival, there’s a sandbox mode). A recent crafting update added recipes for just about everything you need to make.
Building and moving objects does feel a bit different from other survival games, a move that may prove difficult for some players. As opposed to games like Minecraft or Terraria where the player actually picks up and moves objects, Under the Ocean allows you to drag the objects around the screen with your mouse. This is handy but takes getting used to, especially when you bump into your character with a log and throw him across the screen (which I’ll admit amused me far more than it should have).
The developers for Under the Ocean seem to be taking it in a more survival and exploration-based direction. Future updates promise improved random generation (including branching paths on the island), a greater variety of terrain, more depth in character generation and the ability to leave the island. As many survival games tend to take the direction of “Child vs. Legos” rather than “Man vs. Wild”, Under the Ocean definitely has the opportunity to do something different.
Under the Ocean is currently available on Steam. You can also buy it at the game’s website in $7 and $25 editions. The base package gets you alpha access, and the big’un gets you a soundtrack, a spot in the credits and a thank you note from the developers. All editions are DRM-free, so hopefully too many pirates won’t wash up on this island.
Unfortunately, no edition will stop those annoying crabs from biting my dude. Damn it!
Jon Dantzler lives in North Carolina. Gifted with a Game Boy while in utero, his childhood was full of games. He started writing when he was 11 and now devotes the majority of his time to either activity, usually accompanied by beer and food. You can read his tweets, mostly about said beer and food, at @TYBasedJon.