Subnautica: Below Zero is a game that takes great joy in throwing you in at the deep end, with the difference being that it doesnít throw you in a pool, but rather an alien ocean. Things seem ok at first. You can find all kinds of strange creatures, plants, and resources to help you survive. Then the night falls for the first time, and everything starts glowing beautifully.
- Dynamic explorable environments
- Excellent atmosphere
- Freedom to choose how to play
- Extremely immersive
- Story nudges can be distracting
- Graphics arenít always great
- Not immediately welcoming to new players
As you grow more confident and curious, the world begins to open up. Perhaps you find some new and interesting resources or bigger ocean life. Eventually, you might be confidently exploring open waters, without a care in the world, when you hear a terrifying screech, and whirl around to see a hungry monster swimming your way. Thatís definitely not a specific experience.
When it comes to the survival genre, Unknown Worldís Subnautica: Below Zero continues the trend of its predecessor by bringing the engaging and exciting twist of an alien underwater world.†
Not only do you need to understand the 3D environment, watching out above and below you; you also need to make sure to keep track of your oxygen levels. Below Zero also adds temperature as a factor, too. Spend more than a minute out in the open air and you will freeze, which makes the warmer waters of the planet your immediate safe haven.
Same World, Brand New Story
Perhaps the biggest difference between Below Zero and the original Subnautica is the story elements. As the protagonist, you arrive on the very same, watery planet, the 4546B, searching for answers for the mystery of your sisterís death. This is a pretty significant change, and while itís not taking the forefront like in plenty of other games on the market, it does cautiously poke the player in certain directions.
Donít let that discourage you from playing the game however you want, though. Thereís nothing stopping you from just turning tail and heading the opposite direction. Youíll just have to deal with the occasional story beat or audio clip that tries to catch your attention. The story can be engaging and it can give some direction and purpose to the wandering if youíre looking for that. Overall, itís more of a side note in the scope of the entire game.
Generally, it does change the atmosphere and feeling that the game could have. Rather than the pure existential dread that can come from a completely uninhabited alien world and the solitude that compounds that, there is occasional relief. People have been here before, and there are signs of it all over the place once you start exploring. This can be exciting, but it does take away some of the more isolated and existential elements that were more pronounced in the previous game.
Atmosphere, even underwater
There are many different types of atmosphere in this game. Not to be confused with the air surrounding a planet, though thereís also that. First, there are the calm and populous shallow surface waters that encourage exploration and discovering the secrets. Then comes the deep and murky open water that constantly has you checking your surroundings and clinging to the icebergs just to have something solid behind your back.
Then, there are the dark depths of the ocean, where you suddenly realize youíre going to run out of oxygen but you canít remember which way is the cave exit.
Below Zero is great at slowly raising the stakes before presenting you with the next challenge. Youíve found a new island that has an old base on it, but in order to get back home with all the resources youíve discovered, you need to sneak past a giant monster that could swallow you in the blink of an eye. Any other game would be a simple challenge of stealth and patience, but Subnautica adds one, final element: oxygen reserve.
You can try to sneak by slowly, but you will eventually have to go to the surface to get air. Do you carefully pick your moments, or make a mad dash and hope they donít notice? Itís these moments that can turn a calm exploration game into a high-tension heist. Death will respawn you at home, but without many of the items youíd have spent so long finding.
Also, the sight of an enormous creature swallowing you whole is definitely the stuff of nightmares, so best just to avoid that.
Exploring the depths
For the uninitiated lot, resource management and survival definitely will take some getting used to. It takes some time to recognize what is actually useful and what isnít. Most random plants growing on the ocean floor will be just a decoration Ė the key is to look for the glowing plants that the game certainly suggests you to check out.
If the intensity of watching your hunger and thirst levels sounds like too much to worry about, the game has other options. Thereís a mode that takes hunger and thirst out of the equation, leaving health, oxygen, and temperature as your only worries. This can be a great mode to try out and get used to the basics of the game first, without a clock ticking on your back.
Thereís also the other end of the spectrum, with even more difficult modes to try. One mode has permadeath, which means even if youíve been playing for hours and progressed significantly in your adventure, death will mean the ultimate game over.
Thankfully, there is a lot to explore, from the unique creatures like some alien penguins, to the strange roots you can find growing under an iceberg. This is definitely a game you can easily spend a few hours in. Just as a PSA though, this game has no auto-saves, so if you donít want to lose all that progress when you accidentally catch the attention of a giant shark-squid, itís best to save often manually.
Subnautica: Below Zero is a lot of fun, but itís certainly not a perfect game. There are odd graphical errors here and there and strange moments where creatures get stuck on corners and stick their flippers up through ice sheets. But to be fair, that could have more to do with the Switch version of the game than anything else.
The player has true freedom to play this game however they prefer, from following each story beat as it comes up, to ignoring it completely. This duality can be a little frustrating for players who would rather have it one way or the other, but sometimes it can be just the directional nudge you need to move forward. Following the story can also help those disheartening situations where you discover something but arenít really sure what to do with it.
Where this game really shines is in its environments. Exploring the coral reefs full of strange fish can be one of the most calming and engaging experiences in a survival game. On the other hand, the dangerous parts of the world can truly inspire some excellent fearful and tense moments that you wouldnít expect from the same game. The soundscapes also really deserve an honorable mention. You will hear the giant creature before you see it, which is terrifyingly immersive.
If you have the time to really dive into the survival and crafting elements, Subnautica: Below Zero has a lot to offer. But if youíre not into that thereís a whole underwater world to explore, which can be its own reward. Overall, Below Zero has turned out to be an excellent sequel to the original. It sticks to its guns in the best ways while also trying some new things that add a lot to the world, even if they arenít necessarily the best part of the game.
Matt Buckley | Gamepressure.com