Published on May 6th, 2023 | by Richard Banks
Stranded: Alien Dawn PS5 Review
Summary: Stranded: Alien Dawn makes one small step for man and one giant leap for survivor sims-kind.
If Stranded: Alien Dawn has taught me anything, it’s that there’s no sci-fi universe safe from space bugs. After finally finding their feet on the strange, new world my survivors crashed on, hordes of sinister invertebrates had to come along and ruin it all. Maybe it was my fault. After all, I spent an awful lot of time tasking my colony with making their makeshift base more homely rather than focusing on their defences, but, when two of your survivors are prone to meltdowns at the slightest inconvenience, it’s hard to prioritize. With my colony left in tatters (thanks to a Starship Trooper-level bug problem), it was time to dust off, bury my dead, repair and rebuild.
But for every loss I experienced, I found a suitably satisfying win was just around the corner. The whole thing is a balancing act, where dealing with the fragility of man is just as important as keeping your survivors from succumbing to the perils of the otherworldly environments they find themselves in. It’s hard out here on this mysterious frontier.
Stranded feels like a healthy mashup of Rimworld and Sims, with no scrimping on tailoring the experience to each player. There are three unique scenarios to choose from, two very varied biomes and various ways of changing the difficulty to make each run feel unique. The ‘true’ experience comes from the crash landing scenario, where your survivors escape a fiery collision on a strange alien planet, forcing them to fight for survival until they can find a way home.
On the surface, it can be a little overwhelming, with plenty to get your head around. Each survivor has a unique backstory with a fully realized personality; there’s even some soap opera-level drama afoot, with characters spawning with relationships with fellow survivors, from married couples to deep-seated hatreds for each other. Some survivors panic and struggle to adapt, while others thrive off the situation – sometimes, a little too much (here’s looking at you, survivors with the bloodthirsty trait). Survivors can also spawn with illnesses, with problems such as cirrhosis and dementia starting out as minor problems that can develop into more serious conditions with negative side effects late-game.
While in true survival game style, there’s plenty to harvest and craft, the real challenge of Stranded is managing your survivor’s unique traits. They are, after all, human, so therefore susceptible to all sorts of perils, such as their environment, the weather and their faltering mental and physical states. It’s a unique balancing act that feels more like Sims than anything else, having to ensure survivors have enough entertainment and good-quality food to get them through their dire situation.
The best you can do for your survivors is to make their new locale as comfortable as possible. Once the shock of crashing on a potentially deadly planet begins to wane, tasking your survivors with making the most of the resources at hand comes into play. The first few in-game weeks require plenty of research, as well as the crafting of basic huts and equipment, but the more your survivors discover, the better they can utilise their resources. Before long, you’ll unlock balloons to send out exploration parties, animal huts to keep tame beasts in and a proper house to call your own. It’s surprisingly deep, with a tech tree that always feels like it has something new to unlock, and it’s almost always something that feels like it makes a difference to your time in Stranded: Alien Dawn.
The endgame, of course, is to find a way off the planet, but if surviving space isn’t your bag, there are also a couple of other scenarios to try out. I particularly enjoyed the trading outpost mission that tasks you with saving enough money to buy a deed in outer space, turning an otherwise stressful survival sim into a… stressful survival sim with an emphasis on farming.
That’s perhaps my biggest critique of Stranded: Alien Dawn. When it’s not being a genuinely engrossing survival sim, it resorts to pretty frustrating tower defence mechanics. Enemies tend to come in waves, and, like in tower defence games, you’re warned of how many enemies to expect, allowing you to prep for their arrival. While it’s fun to get your crew on the defensive to hold back these bug attacks (and to go full Home Alone by setting a myriad of traps to catch your enemies off-guard), after a few rounds of fighting the same bugs over and over, it does start to become frustrating.
Perhaps that’s on me, though. I prefer Stranded: Alien Dawn when I can play at my own pace without the constant threat of a deadly alien attack around the corner. I enjoy watching my survivors go about their business, sending my best hunter out to take down an alien cow to feed their fellow survivors, while my science guy stays back at camp researching how to turn a crashed ship into a deadly mech. To Stranded’s credit, the previously mentioned myriad of settings really does let you do what you want with your game, so, if like me, you want to focus on survival without the combat, you can remove enemy attacks altogether.
With so much going on, it’s impressive that a game of Stranded: Alien Dawn’s scope plays so well on console. Let’s be clear; it’s a game meant to be experienced on PC, with all the benefits of gaming with a mouse and keyboard, but, as far as console ports go, it’s a great effort. There’s a genuinely deep tutorial that covers everything from basic controls to survivor management, so with helpful hints (and little handholding) tastefully placed throughout the main game, I never felt overwhelmed by the game’s often menu-heavy ways. That said, late-game can get messy, leading you to hit the pause button more often than not when alien attacks come thick and fast, but it’s a small price to pay when playing an in-depth sim on a console.
But despite Stranded: Alien Dawn’s surprisingly impressive launch, there does feel like there’s room to grow. While it’s now out of early access – and in its current state, it does feel like a fully-fledged game – there’s room for Haemimont Games to take it even further. The two biomes are gorgeous, but just two biomes feels a little tight, especially as some alien species show up across both biomes. There are also plenty of other scenarios that could fit well into Stranded’s unique survival sim setting, further pushing the longevity of a game that I could already spend hours on.
Console may not be the best way of experiencing Stranded: Alien Dawn, but for those with no other way of enjoying Haemimont Games’ impressive survival sim, then it’s a more than serviceable port of a game clearly built for the PC market. The tower-defence aspect can grow a little stale over time, but with plenty of options to make your Stranded: Alien Dawn experience bespoke, there are legs aplenty in this exciting step into the unknown.