The ending of this survival game is the most tension-filled fun I’ve had in ages

Meet Jack, one of the colonists marooned on a strange planet in survival colony builder Stranded: Alien Dawn. In the gif above Jack is having a full-on meltdown in my base, punching and kicking a chair in extreme rage and frustration. I can’t stop him. I can’t control him. All I can do is wait it out. It’s a sad sight, but what’s even sadder is that once Jack calms down he’s going to walk outside, gather some wood, and repair the same chair he just punched and kicked to splinters.

It’s humiliating to break something in a fit of dumb rage and then have to do the labor required to repair it—I know this from experience—but there’s no other option. That’s because Jack is the only survivor left in my game. In fact, he’s the only human left on the entire planet.

There’s some good news, though. Believe it or not, this lonely marooned man beating up a chair is actually a success story instead of a disaster. My other survivors didn’t die horribly from accidents or alien attacks or starvation brought on by my typical survival game negligence. They were rescued and left the planet safely. Now there’s just Jack, who’s waiting for his own rescue, but it’s been almost a full year since the wait began. The base is falling apart. Jack is falling apart. I’m honestly not sure he’s going to make it.

I begin my first game of Stranded: Alien Dawn from Haemimont Games, which released in Early Access in October, with Jack and three other survivors crash landing on a hostile alien planet. Surrounded by burning spaceship wreckage and weird alien bugs, I put them to work chopping down trees, salvaging scrap from the crash, building shelters, and hunting for food. I instantly decide Jack will be my hero and workhorse: he’s the strongest, the best at crafting, and the most skilled at combat. I give him one of the two laser pistols salvaged from the crash and assign him dangerous tasks like hunting, and back-breaking chores like construction.

I also notice in Jack’s stats that he has cirrhosis of the liver, but it’s mild and he’s only in a little pain. Horrible untreatable ailments get better when you’re trapped on a dangerous alien planet, right?

A grizzled combat veteran like Jack isn’t the only thing my colony needs to survive. I’ve also got Quin, a smarty-pants who can research technology and observe alien fauna and flora to figure out what it is and what it can be used for. I’ve got Laara, who has farming skills which will come in handy once Quin figures out which alien plants are edible. And I’ve got Yokko, who is honestly not that great at much of anything, which is fine, because someone needs to do boring stuff like keeping supplies stocked and carrying junk around from place to place. It takes a lot of tree-chopping and spaceship salvaging, but soon I’ve moved my colonists from shelters made from sheet metal into a small house made of wood. I’ve also got a stone wall built around the base because, every now and then, alien creatures go from being mostly passive potential meals to swarming, angry predators.

(Image credit: Haemimont Games)

There are a lot of challenges when it comes to resource management and alien attacks, but the biggest struggle in Stranded: Alien Dawn is the colonists themselves. They’re miserable without a wide variety of food and comfortable places to sleep and eat. The planet has four seasons with different types of weather ranging from pouring rain to freezing snow to sweltering summers to legit meteor storms. Keeping everyone warm, safe, dry, fed, and entertained is tough enough without competing with an uncontrollable climate. (I built them a dartboard and a didgeridoo, and unsurprisingly that doesn’t help all that much.) Hell, the moment I move them into this cozy house they instantly began losing happiness because the floor of the house is bare instead of carpeted. Damn ingrates! You want carpet? Then go out and kill something soft and I’ll make you some carpet. Or rather, I’ll make you make some carpet.

There’s a wide variety of gradually more complicated technology to research, depending on how modern you really want to live on this hell planet. It starts with simple furniture, bows and arrows, and meals like soup and stew, but I eventually, unlock smelting, baking, electronics, and even modern comforts like air conditioning, thermostats, automated defenses, and a proper power grid. It’s always satisfying reaching a new level of advancement—just having a fridge and freezer makes life much easier since bug meat doesn’t rot as quickly, and automated turrets help keep angry aliens from smashing down the walls.

From a small metal shelter to a proper base with just a couple years of back-breaking labor. (Image credit: Haemimont Games)

Preventing everyone from losing their minds to misery is a fun but genuinely challenging juggling act.

But research isn’t just a button you click in a tech tree, it requires your smartest colonist—in this case, Quin—to do almost nothing but stand at a desk all day, doing the actual research. The way these humans chow down meals means I need someone to devote a large portion of their day to cooking, too. (Initially it’s Yokko, but she keeps having breakdowns, binge-eating all the meals she just cooked, and then barfing it all back up.) Four people initially seems like enough bodies to get all the hunting, farming, crafting, repairing, mining, and exploring done, but when you’re trying to unlock new tech and stockpile meals, that really only leaves two people free who may not be particularly adept at the activities you’re demanding they do. Plus, they need to sleep and take breaks. As their impatient overlord, I stare disapprovingly at them in their beds while hours pass unproductively.

Throw in routine attacks by giant lizards and enormous bugs, during which everyone needs to drop what they’re doing and defend the base (and afterwards, butcher the dead aliens for food) and hot air balloon expeditions that can take one survivor away from the base for days at a time… Well, keeping the base stocked with supplies and in one piece—and preventing everyone from losing their minds to misery—is a fun but genuinely challenging juggling act.

Meanwhile, a couple of years in, I’ve noticed Jack is now holding a hand against his back while he walks around doing all the hard work. I check his stats and his cirrhosis has gotten worse. Also, he’s come down with pneumonia and I haven’t researched antibiotics yet. He’s in constant pain as I send him out hunting and make him build another room in the base. Hang in there, buddy! Also, could you stop sleeping and spend the next twelve hours building some more wind turbines and solar panels? Thanks!

A mostly-smooth running operation, except for all the times it’s not. (Image credit: Haemimont Games)

A few things help me handle the huge amount of chores, like a daily schedule and task priority list that lets me micromanage the hell out of anyone who hasn’t gone completely feral. Another help is finding extra survivors out in the world. Jack runs into a guy named Ken, who helpfully has a sniper rifle, while exploring a new area in our hot air balloon. A bit later we add Layla: she’s gloomy and gets along with absolutely no one, but is good at crafting and hunting. And one day this dude named Daniel just walks up to our base after seeing our cooking fire from a distance. He’s a pacifist so he won’t help out during combat (ugh), but he’s smart enough to give Quin a break from research and he’s good at building stuff.

Laara is binge-eating and projectile barfing, and Quin keeps going into the bedroom to sob uncontrollably.

Naturally, extra survivors add extra challenges, especially keeping them all clothed—tailoring is our collective weak spot and everyone’s clothing is absolutely falling apart—but things go pretty smoothly with all seven of them in action, except for the time I find Ken unconscious in the woods after he’s struck by lightning and sustains a wee bit of brain damage. Also, Yokko keeps having meltdowns and wandering off into the woods. Plus, Jack’s liver pain is getting worse, Laara is binge-eating and projectile barfing, and Quin keeps going into the bedroom to sob uncontrollably. But aside from those very few minor problems, my colony becomes a well-oiled machine a few years in.

A big wrench is about to get thrown into that machine. Deep into the research trees I unlock the orbital radio. Constructing two satellite dishes and a landing pad lets me detect and communicate with passing spaceships, which can send down supply drops from orbit. Exciting! And best of all, sometimes these ships will have an escape pod they can land at my base to rescue my colonists.

The only way off the planet: hitching a ride on a passing spaceship. (Image credit: Haemimont Games)

There’s a big catch though, and this is what makes the endgame of Stranded: Alien Dawn so much fun: Only a single survivor can escape via the pod. To call down another pod from orbit you need to contact another ship, and there’s no way to tell how long that will take. You just have to keep your satellite dishes spinning, power flowing to the base, and everyone alive while you wait. The other twist is that the alien creatures on the planet hate the frequency that the orbital radio operates on, and they begin attacking the base more frequently and in greater numbers, specifically trying to destroy the satellite dishes once you turn them on. And you kinda need to have them on at all times or you might miss a chance to get a new escape pod.

I’ve had plenty of tense moments during Stranded: Alien Dawn, but this endgame scenario is a real kicker. I’ll be losing a member of my team each time an escape pod arrives, which will leave me without their skills and talents, and the danger to the remaining colonists increases with each departure. I really have to hunker down and think about who to send off-world. Who should go first? Someone with skills I don’t particularly need, or the most unhinged members who are a threat to everyone else simply by being unpredictable? Or should I send my favorite characters (like Jack) because I desperately want to see them survive?

Laara cooks a  bunch of meals, has a breakdown, and eats all the meals she cooked. Then she barfs. (Image credit: Haemimont Games)

Ultimately, I send Yokko on the first pod because (and this is mostly my fault) she never really increased her useful skills, having been surpassed by Laara when it comes to cooking. Also, she has the most meltdowns by far, usually non-destructive ones, but I worry about her wandering off moodily at a critical moment. I’m not sorry to see her go, but I am pretty sorry that everyone else is still stuck here.

It’s only six days later when we contact another ship, and I send Jayla up on the pod because she’s constantly unhappy, and a relative newcomer whose skills never developed. Daniel goes next a week later, mostly because he’s a pacifist and won’t help defend us against the increasingly large swarms of attacks. Again, it seems unfair that I’m letting the least vital people get away safely while keeping the strongest members of my team in peril. It’s stressing me the hell out, especially when alien oxen breach the wall and do some damage to the satellite dishes.

There’s an infestation of cat-sized lizards in the kitchen, which at least makes hunting easier.

It’s New Year’s Day of the third year on this hell planet when another escape pod becomes available, mere hours after some giant flightless birds attack the base at both ends and there’s a hectic battle to hold them off. I really, really want to launch Jack into space on this pod because he’s positively hobbling around now due to his liver problem, which has put him in severe, unending pain. But instead, after mulling it over for long minutes, I send sniper Ken away, which feels like a terrible idea. But the base is low on meals again and I need to keep Chef Laara in place to make enough food to last the year, because Jack and Quin both completely suck at cooking.

Laara escapes into space a week later, so now it’s just Quin the brains and Jack the slowly deteriorating brawn. Throughout the entire, long spring season, a few ships radio in but they don’t have escape pods, just supply drops, and they contain nothing we even particularly need. I’m getting really nervous: bug attacks are increasing and food is dwindling. With only two survivors to do everything I’ve scaled back chores like farming and harvesting, hoping what’s stockpiled in the freezer will last, provided the power also lasts. The base is a mess, with supplies scattered everywhere since no one is assigned to haul stuff around anymore. There’s even an infestation of cat-sized lizards in the kitchen, which at least makes hunting easier. More lizards appear and begin eating the ones Jack killed but didn’t bother to put in the freezer. Gross. At least, for the first time, my survivors each have their own bedroom.

I stupidly almost get Jack killed when I have him run out to shoot at some bugs before they reach the wall, not realizing until it’s too late that I’ve directed him to stand in range of the automated rocket launchers. A bug bites his leg and a moment later a missile aimed at that bug blows up in his face. Luckily, Quin is able to give him first-aid before he bleeds to death, though his stats now also show a “painful scar” on his leg. I try to look on the bright side—maybe the new pain from his scar will distract him from the old pain in his liver? Let’s go with that.

This is how he winds up losing his marbles and impotently punching a chair in the dining room.

It’s a long, long stretch until nearly the end of summer when another rescue pod lands. This sucks, a lot, but I decide to send Quin off-world. I just don’t need his brains anymore—there’s not much point in doing any more research. What I need is a combat vet to defend the dishes from attack, and Jack is easily the best choice for that. Quin blasts off. Only Jack remains.

And this is how he winds up losing his marbles and impotently punching a chair in the dining room, the last human on the planet. I feel terrible, and when he starts repairing it I cancel the chore, figuring he can just use the other chair. It’s now the waning days of fall and I’m not sure Jack will survive another winter all alone and in constant pain. I never advanced his cooking skills so the most delicious meals, once gone, will only be replaced by lizard meat soup. I begin shutting down non-essential powered items simply so I don’t have to make him repair broken wind turbines or failing solar panels. What a terrible life I’m making him endure, simply because I figured he would absolutely insist on enduring it to save everyone else.

It even feels weird for him to answer the call on the orbital radio when it finally comes. That science stuff was always Quin’s job. But there’s another passing spaceship, and sure enough, this one has an escape pod for Jack. Finally. It’s almost exactly a full year since the first pod took Yokko away.

The pod lands and I watch him walk past the outer wall he repaired so many times, past the balloon he took on so many expeditions, past the satellite dish he defended so bravely, and past the missile launcher that shot him in the face (my bad). He gets into the pod and it launches, leaving the planet behind forever. I feel both incredibly relieved and more than a bit sad. Jack got out, he survived, but it also means the game has come to an end—and it’s been a heck of a lot of fun. 

I plan to play again, on a different planet, but I won’t pick Jack as one of my colonists this time. As much as I like him, he’s earned a long rest.

PCGamer.com