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Friday, April 12, 2024

Stranded: Alien Dawn

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Need to know

What is it? A survival colony builder on an alien planet
Expect to pay: $34.99/£29.99
Developer: Haemimont Games
Publisher: Frontier Foundry
Reviewed on: RTX 2080, Intel i7-9700K, 16GB RAM
Multiplayer? No
Link: Official site

Like a scene from Starship Troopers, scores of giant alien bugs are scuttling toward a base on an alien planet while winged insects swoop down from the skies above. The only thing stopping them is a defensive wall and a few determined humans. Wait a second. Where are those determined humans?

Unfortunately, one of them is lying unconscious in a field with brain damage after being struck by lightning. Another had a nervous breakdown and is kicking a chair to splinters in the living room. A third is simply a pacifist, so instead of fighting he’s cooking meatless sausages made out of dried hay. Only one of my colonists is actually fighting the massive wave of alien bugs.

Yeah, I think my base is screwed—though since there’s only hay sausages for dinner, maybe it’s for the best.

Stranded: Alien Dawn is part RimWorld and part tower defense game, with a smidge of The Sims thrown in. The survival colony builder’s premise isn’t all that original: keep a small group of colonists alive on an alien planet while facing food shortages, alien attacks, harsh weather, diseases, and personality conflicts. But what it does wonderfully with that standard setup is generate memorable stories of disaster, survival, occasional comedy, and genuine white-knuckle rescues.

Crash and learn

There are a few different starting scenarios in Stranded: Alien Dawn. You can choose to play as a small group of soldiers setting up a military base, where they must build a powerful communication station and then protect it from swarms of alien bug attacks. Another scenario lets you set up an outpost on a frontier planet and establish trade with ships in orbit in hopes of earning enough money to buy the entire planet.

But the best scenario is the one that feels most like a true survival story. It begins with a crash landing and your survivors standing around the burning wreckage of their spaceship. Typically, several of them react quite naturally: they fall to their knees and start sobbing. But soon you can put everyone to work, and the early hours and days are frantic as you keep them busy chopping down trees, mining stone, planting crops, observing alien fauna and flora, and collecting scrap metal from the crash. Keep your humans fed, warm by the fire, and safe from the elements and insects, and soon you’ll usher them from small, crude shelters to a proper base with modern technology. 

Managing the crew is a challenge and requires a lot of close attention: Each survivor has various skill levels for activities like combat, construction, crafting, and so on—and many start out at zero. They were astronauts, after all, so what would they know about farming or construction? They also have personality traits, both good and bad, that affect their happiness and efficiency and that of those around them. This can be useful, like when someone is so good at crafting that others can learn just by being around them. 

It can also be unsettling, like when someone has a “bloodthirsty” trait and gets a happiness boost because they just watched someone else die horribly. Learning each colonists’ quirks, and what makes them happy or angry is the best way to stave off behavior like crying jags or fits of senseless violence against dining room chairs, which prevent them from doing anything else until they’ve recovered.

Luckily Stranded: Alien Dawn has excellent tools that give you the freedom to dictate every second of your colonists’ day. You can set hourly schedules for each survivor, including leisure time. You can prioritize their tasks or assign them specific jobs, and forbid them from doing things they suck at or hate. You can take direct control over them when you want or need to, such as during an attack or when a specific job needs to be completed pronto. Your micromanagement, if you wish, can even extend down to dictating which shelves they should store certain resources on and what diets they should have. If you love digging deep into optimizing your colonists’ behavior it’s a great and flexible system.

The tech trees are also packed with useful, craftable bits of science from full-on air conditioning and heating systems for your base, to sensors and switches to automate your power grid. There are even big stompy mechs for patrolling and defending your base and borders.

Prioritizing which tech you should unlock next is really tricky—sure, you want to build motion-activated missile launchers to guard your perimeter, but you also need to research synthetic fabric because your colonists’ clothing is falling apart, and you’re only a step away from unlocking 3D printing, or hydroponics, or even musical instruments for your colonists to enjoy. In my games I find myself constantly weighing the choices of what I want to build next versus what they need the most.

Alien vs homesteader

Your survivors will also have to contend with various ailments and physical conditions, some that existed before they ever reached the alien planet. One of my survivors had a cybernetic eye implant, which sounded cool—but turns out the company who manufactured it went bankrupt and now the unsupported device gives him migraines and will probably kill him within a few years. 

Another survivor had a mild liver condition when he arrived but as the years slowly passed on the planet it got more and more severe, to the point where he limped around the base, one hand pressed against his lower back, in severe pain at all times. These little quirks and conditions help them become more than just anonymous figures farming vegetables or hunching over a crafting bench—they slowly turn into people you genuinely care about. Or, y’know, really hate.

It’s not often I play survival games that have an actual ending. In the crash-landing scenario, I eventually built a series of communication arrays that could signal passing ships, and I discovered I could ask them to send down single-occupant escape pods. One by one I sent my long-suffering colonists to the safety of a passing starship, and each time one escaped it left my colony in more danger, as bug attacks increased and there were fewer colonists left to defend the base. 

It took a full in-game year to get everyone to safety, and that endgame was tense and exciting—and even a little sad as I watched the very last colonist get rescued after years of hard work and growing peril.

Stranded: Alien Dawn has some flexibility when it comes to difficulty levels, including a peaceful mode where alien insects are docile and you get a permanent happiness bonus for each of your survivors—so if you want to turn off bug attacks and enjoy the game as a peaceful home-builder and farming sim, you can. Or you can go the other way and make things more challenging with more random disasters, or heightened insect attack at nights. You can even try starting your colonists off with zeroed-out skill points.

I do wish the procedurally generated maps weren’t quite so dull. There’s an exploration system where you send one of your colonists out in a hot air balloon (and offscreen) for a few days to gather resources or even occasionally find new survivors, but exploring the map itself, beyond the borders of my actual base, was rarely all that interesting. Most of my focus was on the immediate vicinity of my base and I never had the interest (or even the need) to stray all that far from it. 

Colonist AI and pathfinding could use some more work as well—I’ll sometimes see a stack of resources lying in plain sight but my colonists won’t collect it or the game will tell me it’s impossible to reach, and I’ll have to take control of a colonist specifically to go get it.

But those issues aside, I love Stranded: Alien Dawn as a survival colony builder. It never really approaches the depth of a game like RimWorld, but there’s still plenty of complexity in the technology, base-building, and especially the management of my long-suffering little colonists. They’re not always as reliable as soldiers during bug attacks, but it’s hard to blame them. Instead of researching 3D printing, maybe I should have unlocked some better meals for them.

The Verdict

86

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Stranded: Alien Dawn

A survival colony builder that generates stories of triumph, disaster, and white-knuckle rescues.

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