From The Depths is a monster, lurking silently and gathering steam for its eventual rise. Featuring highly complex vehicle building and control mechanics, this game is definitely not for the faint of heart. Its status in early alpha also means there are a lot of rough edges, though the lone developer is definitely putting in the time and effort to improve the game.
So what exactly is From The Depths? To answer that question, you’re going to have to pull together a lot of different concepts. Take the block-building system from Minecraft, but leave out the crafting and mining, substituting instead resource points that you can drill for varying resources. Add in movement and advanced weaponry: most of the time, you’ll be developing vehicles that move under their own power via a wide variety of mechanisms, and have to defend themselves with a wide variety of weapons. Finally, add in the ability to automate control of your vehicle—or not, it’s your choice—via the built-in, customizable AI system. AI can control weaponry, movement, or any combination thereof, and automated controls can be set up to perform specific actions when some events occur. It can be tuned to ask specific weapons to attack specific kinds of targets, or even to have them emphasize attacking certain types of blocks on those targets. In fact, you can go so far as to set up complete AI control of all of your vehicles, give them all a certain type of AI add-on that allows you to issue commands to them in realtime, and essentially play the game as an RTS.
This level of freedom can lead to some utterly insane creations. For a look at just a few of the options available to players, take a look at Budkai‘s From The Depths 1K tournament (a tournament in which all vehicles must have fewer than 1,000 blocks):
The controls of the game, while functional, leave quite a bit to be desired, and cannot be easily rebound. You’ll likely end up fighting the controls quite a bit depending on the type of vehicle you want to build. The primary issue at play here is how many control schemes there are: while your character is controlled with wasd and spacebar for jumping, your vehicle controls can include any combination of tyuighjk and the arrow keys, depending on how you set up the vehicle. This is because technically, you can control both the vehicle and your character at the same time—your character and vehicle are never actually tied together unless you’re sitting in a chair on the vehicle. While confusing, this does allow for considerable freedom of movement.
While you do have an avatar, and the avatar can use weaponry of its own, the emphasis of the game is definitely on your creations, not your personal combat ability. Character movement is very floaty; your avatar can survive equally well below and above water, you can make enormous jumps, and you are very durable and generally won’t be directly targeted by enemies, but you won’t be able to deal any significant damage in combat, unless you’re using a grenade launcher against tiny ships. This leads to your personal involvement in combat being minimized: not much is going to kill you (or even attempt to do so), but you’re not going to kill much of anything by yourself, either.
From The Depths’ Creativity Carries the Game
The strength of this game comes from its creative freedom. Want to build a boat? Sure. Add sails? Yeah. Want to put jets on it? Sure, why not. Add helicopter blades? Well… okay, sure. Helium balloons? Fine. Hydrofoils? Go for it. Wings? Throw it in the mix. While you’re at it, add some ion thrusters and turn it into a spacecraft capable of striking from orbit. Perhaps you could even add some controllable air pumps to allow you to flood sections of the craft, adding enough weight to turn it into a submarine. Still not excited? Turn the thing into a fleet carrier by adding some subvehicle spawners and repair tentacles, and throw together a whole fleet of AI-controlled vehicles to rain down death upon your enemies. Put simply, if you can dream something up in this game, you can build it.
Weapons are similarly customizable. While basic weapons that you can drop in and control exist, these will only get you so far: before long, you’re going to want to customize your loadout. Cannons can be upgraded, increasing their caliber, adding explosive and armor penetrating rounds, improving reload time, and modifying their accuracy and firing angle. Shields can deflect cannonfire and other projectiles, but cannot stop missiles or lasers. Missiles can be customized extensively, allowing explosive or fragmentation warheads, infrared or laser-guided targeting, various position prediction algorithms, magnetic heads, and different types of propulsion (including propellers that can turn the missile into a functional torpedo). Based on the design of a missile, it can be used as anything from a bomb to a nimble anti-aircraft missile to a torpedo to a depth charge, or any bizarre combination thereof you can dream up (and afford). Giant laser arrays that can damage enemies and shoot down missiles and customizable drills that can tear through even the heaviest armor in melee round out the current loadout of customizable weapons, though the developer has mentioned possible additional types of weapons that may be coming in the future.
From The Depths currently has several game modes, all of which are in active development. The first is a simple vehicle designer, where you’re handed unlimited resources, landed on a tiny starter raft, and told “go nuts”. This lets you build up whatever crazy contraptions you have floating around in your head, arm them, test them against enemies you can spawn in at will, and save them for later revision or use in other game modes.
There’s also a story mission mode, which drops you into the middle of a number of various scenarios and tasks you with completing an objective or two. Currently, this mode is fairly underdeveloped—it has only a few missions, and these have simple objectives. The missions do serve some use, though: several types of parts are locked until you complete relevant story missions.
When it comes to singleplayer, the campaign mode is your best bet right now. The campaign limits your resources and starts you out in the corner of one territory, with a single enemy faction and little direction other than to conquer the world. A basic diplomacy system ties the campaign together, and as you fight and conquer new territory you’ll form alliances and make more enemies. Resources also play a role here: resource zones can be exploited by using vehicles or fortresses with resource miners and oil drills to suck the area dry as you pass through, after which the resources will slowly regenerate. You also collect resources automatically from the shattered remnants of enemies you defeat, as your enemies attempt to do the same to you.
Enemy factions will send fleets to engage you, strengthen weakly-defended territories (especially territories with resource zones), patrol their own territories, and even conquer territory while you’re off fighting elsewhere. The AI is fairly intelligent about this: while they’ll mostly attempt to defend themselves, if you’re not attacking them they’ll certainly attack you, especially if they see an undefended territory near enough for them to reach.
As the campaign progresses, the AI factions will begin to get access to and use some of their more powerful vehicles. These range from being jack-of-all-trade vehicles to highly specialized, with distinct strengths and weaknesses. Interestingly, these vehicles are primarily fan creations! The developer holds periodic contests and requests specific types of vehicles, allowing the community to submit vehicles for consideration, then (with permission) picks the ones he feels will best fit the unique style of a particular faction, or fill a role he specifically needs.
While multiplayer is available, currently there are very few games available, and only two modes. In the first mode, you select one of your vehicles (which must be completely AI-controlled), and watch it battle other players’ creations. Limits are available to ensure that vehicles are in roughly the same weight class. The other mode is a recently-introduced (and still fairly buggy) cooperative vehicle designer with unlimited resources. Unfortunately, some blocks are currently non-functional, and saving the correct vehicle can sometimes be difficult.
Graphically, the game is fairly poor. While the graphical fidelity is decent, and there are a number of options to control quality, FoV, and other options. However, the textures and models are not outstanding, and occasional slowdowns are likely when dealing with large ships on weaker machines. The developer is definitely putting some effort into graphics, however, as a recent patch significantly improved engine models and textures. Unfortunately, performance can also be an issue, as the game is currently unoptimized. Audio is in arguably worse shape: there is music, and there’s volume options on the music and sound effects, but I quickly found myself muting the music in favor of my own playlist. Some of the sound effects, especially on the avatar weapons, are jarringly loud compared to the normal game audio. This being an alpha, I would expect these issues to get cleaned up (or at the very least, refined) before the final launch of the game.
Early Access Notes
This game is definitely in alpha. There are rough edges everywhere, quite a few bugs scattered throughout, and the game is changing rapidly. This can be a good thing—the developer, Nick Smart, interacts with the community constantly, and seems to have a good feel for where changes are most urgently needed—but it can also mean that a vehicle you built last week might not work this week, and tracking down exactly why might not be easy.
Where It’s Been
From The Depths just recently exited pre-alpha and became available on Steam! The developer’s update schedule is somewhat haphazard; updates are made and features added whenever they’re ready, rather than on a specific schedule. This can lead to occasional droughts where it seems like not much is happening, followed by a series of rapid updates that add a large number of features and bugfixes in short order. However, overall development progress has been rapid and steady (averaging an update every 4 days for 6 months during pre-alpha according to the developer himself), and the game appears to be very much moving in a positive direction. For instance, a mere two days after a major patch on October 4 that reworked several interfaces, added new vehicles to the game, and laid the groundwork for major modifications to the overall structure of the campaign, the Nick Smart unexpectedly announced that From The Depths had just become available for Linux users via Steam.
Where It’s Going
In short, awesome places. Nick Smart interacts with the community constantly, both on the game’s own forums and on the Steam community forums, and even has a list of planned features posted. Looking at the features promised in the past, very nearly every single one is in the game today in some form or another, often with even more effective implementation than was originally promised. The developer follows through effectively and in a timely manner, and fixes annoying bugs very frequently. As of this preview, the developer has campaign and multiplayer improvements on his to-do list, including the addition of special locations, extremely powerful unique faction fleets, and monsters.
From The Depths shows great promise, and even in its current state, with all of its bugs and rough edges, it's very fun to play. As development progresses, look for this game to become truly amazing.