Sublevel Zero (PC Review)
Far gone are the days of gaming where you could save your game at simple save points and find safe sanctuaries in video game worlds. These moments of relaxation and relief are traded up for quick fixes of short lived gaming adventures with unpredictable outcomes and random rewards; the ever popular roguelike. It’s only recently that I’ve found myself being drawn to games that make use of the “permadeath” mechanic -that is once dead your game is pretty much caput- starting players over from the beginning of the game. Sublevel Zero is similar in that regard in which once you die all your progress is reset and you must begin again, a clean slate. At least Sigtrap Games isn’t all that cruel and gives you checkpoints in between levels so that you can attend to more crucial things such as eating and sleeping without fear of losing progress.
The theme for the story is bleak and one that’s filled with desperation as the universe in Sublevel Zero is filled with what once was whole but a now fragmented humanity, wormholes have swallowed civilizations and all of humanity has been spread throughout the universe with little to no resources at their disposal. In an attempt to unravel the mystery of how these events came to be you descend into a long lost research facility to hopefully find answers. The way in which the story is delivered is effective in developing curiosity in the player, through the text based introduction we learn all that has happened but are mainly given the abbreviated events; cataclysmic event happened and you set out to discover how these events came to be. This sense of unresolved mystery helps to engage the player by simply poking at their curiosity. It also sets up the theme of isolation since you’re pretty much on your own with no allies by your side throughout the game and the thought of any source of human/friendly interaction being somewhat unlikely due to the events that have transpired making the game more tense and the sense of “permadeath” more permanent from a story perspective.
The gameplay is very reminiscent of Descent, a similar flight-simulated first person shooter released in the mid 1990’s. A lot of elements from Descent can be seen within Sublevel Zero from some environments down to the enemies, though the artstyle is a little different the familiarity is still there. Movement is as fluid as you’d expect allowing you to move in any direction on the X,Y and Z axis giving the player more freedom to dodge incoming fire and maneuver around obstacles. However there were some hiccups while trying to fly around during combat. That main hiccup being the increasing number of frame drops that I experience any time I got into a firefight or simply navigating a larger portion of the map. I initially thought it may be due to the that the default setting for the draw distance of objects was set to max but changing this didn’t help any.There is also significant frame drops even in the main menu, selecting the various options available to you can seem stiff and with the lack of a better word, sticky. The menu obviously isn’t a huge problem but the frame drops in combat can have a severely negative effect on the player’s performance and with a “permadeath” system in place, if the player were to die, they could easily feel cheated due to this in the game. Otherwise exploring the labyrinthine complex that you are stranded in is enjoyable for the most part as movement is very sleek and by finding loot chests and data logs keeps the player satisfied as these little rewards for exploration pay off.
The retro artstyle is an odd choice as it’s a little bit harder to convey to the player that they are in fact in space or on board a space station of sorts. Since there are no windows to look out of (structural integrity reasons of course), communicating the that you are in fact in space is difficult. Sigtrap Games manages to do this through use of lighting, the neon lighting sets a futuristic tone and when transitioning from the confines of the research facility to the caves of the asteroid it is housed on, it’s quite clear that you are in a cave as the well defined formations of the walls and ceiling mixed with low lighting convey this. One of the smaller parts that really stuck out to me was the design for the in-game map. The map is a somewhat 3-Dimensional holographic representation of the maze you are exploring allowing you to rotate and observe it from different angles to look for passages you could have missed or simply find the correct direction in which to go. It mainly stood out because we don’t tend to see a lot of this in games, we are mostly presented with a 2D overhead map that has no depth and either overly illustrated which makes reading them hard or not enough so that routes are not clearly defined.
From time to time you will often be faced with the dilemma of being over-encumbered, one that is all too familiar to those who play RPG’s. The over-encumberment isn’t one of weight but the lack of inventory space. You can only carry 12 pieces of equipment on your craft at any one time meaning you may have to leave some weapons or ship parts behind and back track later if need be. Crafting is an ideal way around this as you can combine multiple weapons to form new ones, some bad some good but you are mostly limited to what you can construct until you find some blueprints.
All in all Sublevel Zero is an enjoyable tribute to the Descent title. The freedom of movement is smooth and the level generation, environments and story help immerse the player in the world of Sublevel Zero. However, the constant frame drops is a major issue and hopefully this is only the case in my experience as it does tend to suck the enjoyment out of the game’s combat gameplay. This is definitely still worth a gander at least, and the frame rate issues don’t prevent a complete lack of enjoyment. If you were a fan of the old Descent games then this should be on your to purchase list