Every once in a while, we all allow ourselves to be a little bit impulsive about the game we want to play. In this case, it was my turn. Watching the stream for the last few hours of Overload’s kickstarter campaign, I watched as SubLevel Zero was one of the titles the team played to show off what 6 Degrees of Freedom was. In fact it was the only game they played I have not yet even played, let alone finished. As such, I decided I would pick the game up myself and within a week was playing. And while at first I was really enjoying myself, it was not exactly the best of choices to just pick up and play.
Story: In the distant future, the apocalypse has begun. While the drama of the word is missing, the description is accurate, as the universe is falling apart... and has been for years. Literally holes are torn in the fabric of reality seemingly at random leaving destruction and displaced planets/solar systems throughout.
Mankind has survived so far, but there is no unity. Rather, there are clans holding on desperately to ships and technology they can no longer reproduce, many forced to follow warlords who managed to get their hands on weapons from before everything went to hell and now use this power as tyrants.
However, not all are just trying to get by or only interested in ruling their tiny little empire. Your clan, for example, is trying to understand what happened, and perhaps how to stop the decay of the universe by this understanding. As a scout for your clan, part of your mission is to investigate this when you find such pre-Event technology. Unfortunately for you this investigation went bad. The very jump you used to get close tipped the already unstable reality of the installation you found over the edge, sending it to some far-flung part of the universe, and you in it's wake.
Now you are alone, beyond the reach of your clan, and with no hope of getting home with your current equipment. Rather, your only real chance is to now venture inside and hope you can find something there that will help you get home.
From this point, you will find this game's story very reminiscent of old-school 90s PC games... there isn't any more than this. The only details you will get from here until the very end are snippets of data from those who once ran the facility you now find yourself flying through until you finish your adventure. At this point you will be treated to a very barebones ending that explains little at best and is again, reminiscent of 90s gaming for it.
Graphics: Much like the story, the game’s look will remind you of a time in gaming over 20 years ago. You will play from the point of view of the cockpit of your little gunner ship as you traverse a very colorful grounds alternating between well crafted, and detailed technological tunnels and rooms to intricately mined out parts of the asteroid. But this detail is painted up with low-level bitmaps, imitating an old-school aesthetic you would get from playing games like Descent or the original Quake back in the day. The result are incredibly clean retro looking levels, even as it’s clearly a little too complex to actually be the old tech. To go with this, the robots you face off with will fit right in, most of them being fairly simplistic looking in design to fit the feel of the game.
And finally add to all this to this a very effective lighting system, complete with shiny surfaces both in the world and in the cockpit that wouldn’t have been available on the time this game is imitating as it’s one modern touch and you have a complete package that is colorful and different from just about everything you see out there, and genuinely pleasant to look at.
But unfortunately, even as the game looks good, it lacks in variety. You will find all the tunnels drilled out will mainly be differentiated by color, and you will find many of the later robots look enough like their earlier counterparts to have trouble telling the types apart. Most of them will boil down to a 3D geometrical shape with maybe a light in the front and a weapons attached… and since most of the guns look relatively the same when faced off with from the distance you will be fighting, it makes identifying what you fight half the time a bit of a challenge.
Sound: Much like everything else this game offers, the soundtrack in this game was made to give the feel of a bye-gone time of gaming, even as it uses advances since. In this case, synthesized sounds are used to emulate the kind of music you would get with chiptunes, completing the nostalgia trip the game is trying to take you on. Sadly there is not a ton of music to do this with, but then considering the length of the game, there is enough to do the job. It’s just a shame as you can hear real talent oozing from the work that is here.
And while it doesn’t take as much to do the same with sound effect, this theme is strong here too, as you basically will be dealing with blips, bloops, and old-school atari-esque explosions for most of the game, taking you back a few years and, if you were a child when these games were big, reminding you of a simpler time with simpler games to enjoy.
Gameplay: When you first start playing, you are going to be reminded heavily of Descent and other 6 Degrees of Freedom (6DoF) games you might have played. But for those of you who haven’t played that masterpiece (and you should), Sublevel-Zero is played from inside the cockpit of a gunship with the full maneuverability to move in all directions like someone might walk or run across a room. You will use this ship to navigate the maze-like levels, at the end of each will be a reactor you need to destroy before proceeding to the next. But this is about where the familiarity to the old series ends.
For while Sublevel Zero pays tribute to the game that originated the style, it also takes the gametype and boils it down to be short enough to be finished in 1 to 2 sittings. Instead of focusing on a full-length game, this time you are playing a much shorter title that randomly generates each level to ensure you don’t keep replaying the same levels over and over, and this is where the game’s biggest flaw becomes apparent. While I applaud the ambition this game has in gameplay, the random level generation’s idea of “random” isn’t so much a random layout as a line of randomly selected rooms with a pre-determined room at each end. Each map will have a few turns off the path, but I’ve never seen more then 3 across the entire thing, and more often than not, that extra path is just going to reconnect to it’s counterpart a room or two down the line. As a result, you will probably feel like you’ve been down this path before well before you finish the game.
And that’s because you most likely won’t finish it the first time. Sublevel Zero is a rouge-like game, meaning that the game relies on a perma-death mechanic. Yes, if you are running short of time, you can save between each of the 6 levels that make the game. But when you die, you go right back to the beginning without anything you you built up.
And unless you are one hell of a pilot this will happen a lot. Sublevel Zero is a very hard game… not often in the levels themselves but the bosses can be downright diabolical, which actually works against the game. Normally if a game is too hard, it’s pushing you too much to have fun.. But when you make a game that uses perma-death and expect the player to start again whenever they die, you have to make sure there is enough there to keep them coming back, and in this case, that is just not true. In most cases, you will honestly get bored of flying the same rooms in different orders without any real maze to navigate before you see your way to the final level of the game. It’s the main example of why this game just doesn’t have enough staying power.
Even the crafting mechanic fails to add more to this, as it’s a complete crapshoot if you will get what you need to make new weapons you actually want (or at all), you won’t get to keep what you make between runs, and any given run is not going to give you enough to make more then a few weapons/pieces of hardware for the ship even if you make it through all six levels. Much like the rest of the game design, it’s ambitious, but the potential is just not realized enough to keep gamers coming back for more.
Bugs: Despite my issues with the game in the long run, I can not say it ran badly at any point. This game appears to be pretty bug free.
Overall: While the initial thrill of playing another 6DoF title was awesome, it unfortunately fell short in the long run. The random level generation basically left you with few alternate paths to follow and most of them went to the same place, making the game feel linear. The enemies were varied with many different styles of attack, but it can be tough to tell them apart at a distance where it matters for combat. And even the crafting system is too vast for the length of the game due to how often you will use it and sometimes the odds of getting the materials to make anything at all.
I could not in all honesty call this game bad. It isn’t. It just suffers from really not being enough on way too many fronts, and as such falling short of greatness on all of them. The result being a game that isn’t terrible but isn’t really good either. Rather it is a game that gets too repetitive before you finish it.
And yet, it is also a game that genuinely leaves me hopeful for the developer behind it, as I could clearly see a lot of good ideas while it could keep my attention. In short, I can not recommend this game, but if the developer would make a sequel and refine the ideas here, they may have something truly great on their hands next time.
Source’s Listed System Requirements:
- Windows XP/7/8/10
- 2.5ghz Dual Core processor
- 2 GB RAM
- Nvidia Geforce GT 520/AMD Radeon 3850 or higher graphic card
- 800 MB hard drive space
- AMD Phenom II 6X 1100T (6 core) processor running at 3.3 Ghz
- 8 GB RAM
- NVidia Geforce 760 GTX with 2GB VRAM
- Windows 10