Sublevel Zero - Review
Zero Gravity FPS Shenanigans
A kaleidoscopic carnival of vibrant colors and pixel explosions, Sigtrap Games’ Sublevel Zero manages to remix old gaming genres into something novel and engaging. Long after humanity has been scattered among the stars due to some cataclysm that has warped the fabric of the universe, a lone scout finds an ancient space station from before the event. However, entering the area around the station causes reality to rip, pulling both the pilot and facility into a place beyond space and time. The only hope to return home rests in whatever technology the facility contains, provided the lonely pilot can overcome the advanced automated defenses within the station.
Sublevel Zero represents roguelikes in the classical sense: When you die, you start over from scratch (or nearly scratch if you happen to have unlocked one of the alternative starting ship designs) and the world rearranges itself. The core gameplay loop remains intense and frantic no matter how many times you play through the twisting corridors and labyrinthine levels. However, with more experience, you’ll begin to subconsciously count your shots and learn how many hits it takes to destroy each enemy type. This is practically a necessity because wasting ammo can lead to desperate shortages in later levels. Every shot is important and could hold the secret to victory or defeat.
Chests and challenge rooms reward diligent exploration as players progress through each level. Inside these chests could be ammo, nanites, or parts that can be used to tailor the player’s ship to a specific playstyle. Nanites are used between levels to acquire passive upgrades like increased damage or a small amount of ammo regen. More importantly, nanites are used to combine items with the in-game crafting system which allows the player to upgrade the gear they come across into different, deadlier weapons, sturdier armor, or faster engines.
The mechanics of Sublevel Zero are balanced such that every choice players make has a potential downside that could come into play sooner or later. Some upgrades increase the damage of certain ammo types at the expense of damage from other ammo types. Better armor will often limit the maximum amount of ammunition the ship can carry or total inventory space. Choosing to rely on an ammunition hungry weapon and a heavily armored craft might lead to surviving the upcoming level, but it could leave the ship nearly defenseless in the following area. Each playthrough is defined by these small choices and it makes Sublevel Zero a game that players can keep coming back to time and again.
Also scattered throughout levels are journals from the original inhabitants of the station. These text logs unravel the mystery of the facility and its connection with the anomalies that continue to rip apart the universe. While these are certainly interesting, the story’s role in the enjoyment derived from Sublevel Zero is negligible. Perhaps Sigtrap Games had designs to expand the larger narrative and its impact on gameplay beyond the initial premise, but those never come to fruition. I would have been interested to learn more about the wandering, primitive clans and how life goes on when a rip in space-time can pulverize a planet at any given time. Unfortunately, while those types of events are mentioned, they remain firmly in the background.
Sigtrap Games describes Sublevel Zero as a six degrees of freedom type game meshed with roguelike qualities. Essentially, it plays like an arcade space flight sim mixed with Doom. Every level takes place within a confined, randomized space full of bright lights, branching corridors, and rooms of enemies. While the gunplay feels highly polished and responsive, the potential to become disoriented presents a real obstacle for players. Since the premise of the game has the player floating in space, it can be sometimes hard to orient the ship and get a handle on the surroundings. Often entering new rooms, especially in the cavernous middle stages, can prove to be a miserable affair. Once enemies enter the fray, spraying blazing laser pixels in the player’s direction, it becomes confusing to parse out the action on screen and the ship's relation to it. Being unfamiliar with the terrain can mean death if the ship catches on the nearby geometry. The core appeal of both roguelikes and games that successfully draw on Doom is that when you died, you fell like it was fair. You screwed up, so you died. That sense of fairness can sometimes be compromised in Sublevel Zero and that presents a flaw.
The soundtrack composed by Will Bedford, deserves a shout out being a perfect complement to the Sublevel Zero experience. It manages to create a focused, yet chill, atmosphere that occasionally expands dynamically during large encounters to build a feeling of epic resistance. It adds an urgency that the core gameplay sometimes lacks between rooms of enemies. The game would be utterly and completely different with a lesser musical accompaniment.
If you seek a difficult game to conquer, Sublevel Zero will be a worthy adversary. While its gameplay doesn’t present an overwhelming challenge in the moment-to-moment action, it demands a certain amount of mental and reflexive endurance to make every shot count, avoid enemy attacks, and make smart, long-term decisions. A definite learning curve exists for dealing with the six degrees of motion available and learning how to navigate often unpredictable terrain. For those that can overcome the challenges that could prove frustrating for some players, Sublevel Zero holds a ton of beauty, replayability, and strong gameplay that carries it through the less than stellar aspects of its construction. This won’t be something that most people will invest hundreds of hours into, but it will be something most people will be perfectly happy to play for a dozen hours or more and feel content with their purchase.
Is It Fun?:
Pilot a spaceship through an ancient space station in FPS
The 8-bit effects are jarring with the 3D environments
Serviceable, but not memorable
Very easy to become disoriented, which proves frustrating
Ehhhh, play FTL and follow it up with Doom
The die-hard rogue-like lovers
Sublevel Zero was reviewed on PC and is available now.
Review originally appeared on www.extra-life.org 12/11/15