Sublevel Zero PC Review
I am going to use some shorthand now – sorry about that. I have never been hugely into rogue, roguelikes, roguelike-likes and the like. No matter how deep down that rabbit hole you go, that style of game very rarely grabbed me. The one time I was thoroughly captivated was playing Spelunky, which is in itself confusing as it is one of the more oppressively hard takes on the genre. You can make it all the way to the very last room of the very last level, make a mistake, but the game does not give a crap how you feel and tosses you back to square one to start again. I never really figured out why Spelunky won my attention, maybe it simply the fact it is just a well made game.
Let’s try to step away from Spelunky for a while, as other than permadeath and procedurally generated rogue elements, the two are not highly comparable. I mostly mention that game as it is the perfect example of how to build an experience players will want to play more and more. This was something that never really clicked for me with Sublevel Zero.
Let’s start with my biggest plus point. Sublevel Zero feels really good to play. It opts to use the six degrees of freedom (6DOF) controls made famous by the likes of Descent in the mid-90s. If you are unfamiliar with the term, the simplest way to explain it is that you can never invert your craft. There is no upside down nor sideways. No matter what direction you face, or what axis your ship is on, you are facing the correct way. How a game “feels” is very hard to get across in text, so let’s try and dig into that a bit more. Movement in the game is very nimble, with enough agility to dodge around a screen filled with blaster fire. However, the ship also has weight to it. You are moving something with solid mass through space. It would be very easy for a game like this to resemble a cursor darting around a screen, but Sublevel Zero makes you feel you are at the controls of a substantial beast that could cause damage. Thankfully, flying into walls does not cause structural damage, which is welcome, as even after multiple hours navigation still got the better of me.
Sitting at the helm of your ship with all these options at hand, Sublevel Zero gives you a range of enemies to fight, and a bunch of items to collect, all situated in procedurally generated labyrinthine structures. How you improve and upgrade your ship is initially confusing, but is figureoutable the more you play. It is very much a case of learn by doing. Getting the items is simple, you just wander around the maze you have found yourself in, and either blow up enemies or open bright luminous chests. The more important pickups improve weapons, hull and engines – with each of these having their own ARPG-like rating systems to give you a hint at what they are best at. Health pickups and ammo will also come your way, as do blueprints for items that will become important in future runs. There is also a currency to use as part of your upgrade plans. There’s a crafting system too, that I found incredibly complex and confusing. There has to be some logic to it, but it can at times seem totally random and present you with lesser items than you feed into it. I got so scared at one point, that if I was having a good run, I would avoid using it at all costs.
The downside is simple. Sublevel Zero is not the most compelling roguelike game I have ever played. Whilst the game needs randomised level creation to up its longevity, and keep players coming back for more, there are issues on show. As someone who is amazed when I can get an Excel spreadsheet to work, I am not going to pretend I know about the ins and outs of random level generation, but I really do think Sublevel Zero needs a tighter one. In it’s current form, almost every level I played I found myself piloting my ship down long corridors into empty dead end rooms. It’s obviously not as simple as turning down the knob labeled “Dead Ends,” to fix this issue, but I would like the people smarter than me, who are employed because they are so much smarter than me, to do what it takes to tone down the amount of dead ends the game currently spits out.
The other downside is that I never really fell in love with the item unlocks and upgrades on offer. There are many different upgrade paths to go down that improves the available ships, but I found many of them far too similar. Instead of getting obsessed with the different skills items would grant me, I was always looking at numbers – in particular the damage numbers that fly off enemies. I know they are vastly different games, but I am going to evoke Spelunky again for a second. In Spelunky the items were always super important. Stumbling into a jetpack and shotgun combo meant you could lay waste to areas. In Sublevel Zero I never cheered when an item popped up in rotation, as I never grew attached to any of them to care that much.
The game is certainly a looker. It is never going to win an award for “most graphics,” but what it manages to do with its limited options is absolutely gorgeous. The neon, vivid, eye-burning, beautiful, massive raw polygons are a sight to see. When the projectiles start bounding around, and crafts start exploding the game really pops. Technically, Sublevel Zero seemed to scale well. I played it on an aging laptop and also had a go on a much more powerful desktop set up. As you would expect the more powerful set up ran the game with ease, but the laptop also held its own. There is not a huge amount of options to tinker with graphically, but the option to lower draw distance was key in upping the framerate on my low powered machine. Another thing to note, the developers have mentioned the game will be fully VR enabled at some point down the line. That seems both insanely awesome and stomach-churningly horrible in equal parts. If I find myself happily vomiting in 2016, it will most likely be due to having played Sublevel Zero with a VR headset on.
I wanted to mention the story of the game, but thinking about it, the little story there is seems almost totally meaningless. I have looked at the early cutscenes a few minutes before starting to write this paragraph, but have already forgot the details behind them. The basic idea seems to be that something terrible happened to physics. I guess a black hole, but I don’t think they ever mentioned one. This not-a-black-hole has caused the dimensions of space to fold on itself. Basically it is a roundabout way of saying you must pilot your ship through various procedurally generated locations to escape. It is almost as if the story did not need to be there.
For people that once loved Descent, and in their heart of hearts still do, Sublevel Zero is a compelling answer for those that want a modern day take on the genre. It is not without issues though. It is an expertly crafted 6DOF game with tight controls, but the rogue parts of its cross genre appeal are rough enough around the edges to be problematic.