Stranded: Alien Dawn sure owes a lot to RimWorld. Yes, it’s hardly the first “colony sim” — that sort of halfway point genre where you manage the whims and needs of individual characters like The Sims mixed with survivalist base-building in the vein of Valheim — to follow in that game’s footsteps. Nor does Stranded even look much like RimWorld. Its somewhat plain 3D style calls to mind more traditional survival games like Rust, The Forest, and a hundred other such things instead. Yet anyone who plays both games will immediately recognize the comparison.
You kick things off as a group of four survivors at the crash site of a starship. Your semi-random “heroes” have traits and interests that make them better at things like construction and combat. They eat, sleep, and work according to a schedule you set for them, but otherwise aren’t (usually) under your direct control. Though you can order them around a bit when there’s a dire encounter: like alien animals attacking the settlement.
The obvious objective with these building blocks is to create a Rube Goldberg machine out of people — one that feeds and clothes and defends itself from giant alien scorpions with minimal intervention on the player’s part. Except, of course, that people are not machines. Traits like an aversion to gore that makes one unwilling to treat other colonists’ injuries, or two characters deciding they hate each other, will throw wrench after wrench into any design you can concoct.
This is where most of the fun of Stranded (and by extension RimWorld) actually occurs. When faced with the unpredictable, how do you get things back on track (or perhaps take advantage of the situation)? Organ-harvesting raiders might attack during the harvest season, for instance, or someone under your care might suddenly develop an interest in cannibalism. Somebody might start throwing tantrums if you don’t let them worship a psychic tree. Even as a horde of evil squirrels assaults your home.
To be clear: most of the events in the previous paragraph do not actually occur in Stranded: Alien Dawn. At least not right now. Those are RimWorld scenarios. This game, by comparison, is more concerned with actually letting you build your ramshackle machine — defending its people-powered clockwork against fairly predictable threats like those alien bugs, bad weather, starvation, and boredom.
Part of this is likely due to the game’s early access status. As I’m writing this, it’s only been out for a few weeks, and it’s clear that special attention was paid to making sure the whole thing has strong bones, rather than tons of variety. There’s only one opening scenario at the moment, for example, as well as one region and one habitable in-game planet (or moon as the case may be). You also can’t create or randomize survivors at all. You can only draw from a pool of premade colonists at the moment. All of whom ironically look like they were randomly generated with software like This Person Does Not Exist or some similar AI portrait maker.
And while the graphics will likely appeal to some players more than the minimalist cartoon character in other game, the bland design extends to the world itself. This alien planet looks an awful lot like earth with a couple of weird mushrooms. You don’t even get that much outlandish technology beyond the occasional laser pistol. “Researching” animal and plant life begins with your settlers… staring at it for a few hours. Shelters are made of logs and scrap metal that look like something out of any one of countless post-apocalyptic survival game that are a dime a dozen on Steam (sometimes literally).
So why do I keep comparing the game to RimWorld? Well, besides the gameplay and basic crash-landing premise, the user interface of Stranded is nearly entirely lifted from its most obvious inspiration.
One perfect example is the priority menu. Workers perform tasks like cooking and crafting according to levels of importance that you give them. These priorities are then arranged per colonist in basically identical formats across both games. Just look at the side-by-side comparison below. It’s not terribly subtle!
There’s a pretty obvious upside to this, too, of course. Stranded has a wonderful shopping list of dos and don’ts to consult. Both at launch and as it continues to progress through early access updates. It can (and does) learn not just from RimWorld itself, but also from the mountain of must-have mods colony sims like it have inspired over the years.
In fact, Stranded already improves upon some of the foundation laid down by RimWorld simply by arriving in 3D. Things like windows and wall-mounted lanterns — which largely exist only as user-made mods for RimWorld — are available out of the box here. Just tilt your camera down to plop one into the side of a building! This sort of vertical construction has subtler gameplay value than just saving valuable floor space, too. It lets you heat and cool rooms or provide bonus happiness with natural sunlight. Another writer I spoke to even mentioned “lizard birds” flying through a window to ransack their food stores. You can easily see those stores yourself on shelves by just… looking at them. This is even achievable with full controller support out of the gate, which makes Stranded an excellent Steam Deck game to boot.
These may seem like tiny systemic improvements to an established formula. But that’s because, well, they are. Colony sims are the sorts of games you can find yourself playing the same campaign in for years at a time. Tiny improvements add up. Especially when the game itself launches with them in mind. Who knows what else the developers might improve over time?
Stranded may feel thematically threadbare compared to its cousin at the moment. Even with a blueprint to work from, it’s tough to compete with a game that’s had years of expansions to add things like telepathic royals, space religion, and gene theft for making your own, private army of cat-people. But that’s what early access is for, isn’t it. It’s easier to build a solid foundation at the start than to try and slide one beneath your feet. Stranded has some ways to go, but it’s also got its best foot forward already.