You’re Cold And They’re Hungry

HIGH My first look at the Frozen Leviathan.

LOW Spending 90 minutes wandering in circles, looking for an alien door.

WTF That’s a remote-control penguin you’ve got there.

It’s not easy to improve on perfection, and 2018’s Subnautica was pretty close to perfect.

A survival game set on a planet composed of 99% water, players found themselves stranded in a world so hostile that they were always just a few seconds away from death, and then slowly earned the tools and experience necessary to tame that same world until they were cruising around in a giant submarine. That kind of experience is a tough act to follow, but Unknown Worlds has managed to craft a successor that improves on the original in almost every way… while still stumbling over some things that should have been solved.

Taking place at the northern pole of Planet 4546B, Below Zero stars main character Robin Ayou. Taking place years after the events of the first Subnautica, Robin has come to the planet on a quasi-legal journey to investigate the death of her sister Sam, who disappeared while working for a subtly sinister corporation. Below Zero is all about surviving a first-person ordeal long enough to figure out exactly what happened to Sam.

The first thing returning players will notice about Below Zero is how much better it is at onboarding this time around. Robin starts the adventure by crash-landing on an iceberg, and she’s got plenty of time to nab the supplies scattered around the area before trudging through the snow towards the survival capsule which will serve as her first base of operations.

Once she’s settled, players will find huge improvements have been made to the crafting and resource-hunting systems. Not only can they ‘pin’ recipes to their HUD so they’ll know once they’ve found the materials they’re looking for, they can use a hand-held mineral scanner to pinpoint the location of items they need. It only has a 20-meter range, but that’s still a huge improvement over swimming around in circles until spotting the correct kind of rock in the darkness of being underwater.

Below Zero‘s story is a a big step up over the first, as well. Previously, nearly all of the plot was relegated to logs where the nameless main character could pick up backstory without much reaction to the events around them. This time, the main character feels like a real person — she’s affected by her sister’s death, curious about the planet’s strange mysteries, and determined to do the right thing when faced with dangerous situations. She and the NPCs she’ll meet are well-written and voiced, bringing life to what would otherwise be a more polished rehash of Subnautica’s gameplay.

Like Subnautica, Below Zero has a number of fascinating underwater biomes to explore, as well as a ton of new sealife to meet and, in many cases, eat. Each new area — from spiral thermal vents to fields of enormous lily pads to depths built entirely out of glittering crystal — has its own arrangement of wildlife, as well as cleverly-hidden secrets to uncover. In addition to the numerous giant monsters looking to chow down on Robin, there are numerous animals that seemingly exist just to add character and delight. I defy anyone to find Pengwings — like penguins, but with vertical mouths — anything but adorable. The sea monkeys are also a delight. They can steal devices right out of the player’s hands and must be chased down before they disappear, taking the item with them. After going through this a few times I realized one of the game’s most brilliant conceits — the sea monkeys were stealing my technology to build their nests, so if I wanted to find new blueprints to develop, I’d better start scanning their homes and grabbing their past spoils.

As long as Subnautica: Below Zero stays underwater, it’s every bit as engaging as its predecessor was. It’s only when players move to the surface that things take a bit of an unfortunate turn.

There are two large above-ground areas which must be explored on foot (or hoverbike, once players have obtained the technology to build one.) The problem is that these places are far too labyrinthine for their own good. One icy passage looks just like the next, and even with the benefit of a compass, it’s incredibly easy to get lost.

This problem is compounded by the weirdly oblique directions given when it comes to leading the player to story objectives. Subnautica put down markers or at least offered clear written clues, but Below Zero encourages the player to wander around aimlessly, waiting for an NPC to tell them that they’re ‘getting close to something important‘ and then getting offer no further guidance. The experience would be far less frustrating if players could auto-generate a map everywhere they went, so they could know where they’d been and where they still needed to search. Instead, the developers eschew this common feature and offer beacons that can be dropped when the player finds something interesting. It’s an insufficient mechanic and the beacons wind up cluttering the player’s HUD and PDA.

Despite my problems with the above-water sequences, I still found Subnautica: Below Zero to be a delight. It expands on the first game’s worldbuilding, offers surprises and thrills in equal measure, and most importantly, it takes a huge amount of frustration (if not all of it) out of survival. The end of the story promises a third chapter which could open up the world in even more intriguing ways, and if the developers can keep improving their formula, I’m very excited to see what’s next.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Unknown Worlds Entertainment. It is currently available on PC, Switch, Xbox X/S and PlayStation 4/5. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS5. Approximately 35 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. The game has no multiplayer modes.

Parents: This game was rated E10+ by the ESRB, and it features Animated Blood, Fantasy Violence, and Mild Language. The game really is that kid-friendly, especially as the player doesn’t get a gun and shoot things. Yes, they can stab with a knife and will be killing and eating plenty of fish, but by and large, this is child-friendly stuff. The swearing is never worse than a couple uses of “damn”, but be careful — the game deals with the death of a loved one in a realistic and heart-wrenching fashion. Also, the leviathans can be TERRIFYING.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played some of the game without audio and encountered few difficulties. There’s only one major issue, and that’s knowing when a monster is about to attack. Big creatures tend to roar or screech before biting, so players have a chance to duck under something or dodge back into their DSVs before the unthinkable happens. There’s no visual component to help with this, so players with hearing difficulties will have no warning. In this case, they’re better off playing on standard mode – on Hardcore the game will be over the moment the player is swallowed whole, which will definitely happen at some point. All dialogue is subtitled and all instructions are provided via text.

Remappable Controls: Yes, the game’s controls are remappable.

Daniel Weissenberger
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