It’s funny that humans are so fascinated with outer space when we have something just as mystifying on our own planet.
Our oceans remain largely uncharted territory. The National Ocean Service estimates that 80 percent of our seas have yet to be explored. We have no idea what’s down there, which means that we’re living on the same kind of alien planet we’re so keen on discovering.
Subnautica: Below Zero understands how mysterious that is. Like its 2018 predecessor, the sequel turns the ocean into an alien ecosystem filled with colorful flora and terrifying deep-sea monsters. The underwater survival game is a striking experience that reminds us just how dangerous, beautiful, and ultimately unknown our own world is.
For those who were intimidated by the original game, Subnautica Below Zero is a more digestible sequel thanks to a direct story with clearer goals. While a bit of mystique with its focus on characters and dialogue, its colorful world is as awe-inspiring as ever.
Can I Live?
Subnautica: Below Zero doesn’t change much about the original in terms of gameplay, and that’s not a complaint.
It’s an underwater survival game where players start with nothing but a tiny base with a 3D printer that can spit out food, crafting components, and tools. Players scavenge the sea for resources and slowly build up the complexity of what they can build. At the start, creating a bottle of water is a miracle. By the end, players can build a sprawling underwater home filled with furniture.
Like many games in the genre, it’s a powerful loop that makes every little discovery meaningful. Get a knife, and you’ll be able to cut coral samples. Combine that with some metals, now you’ve got a computer chip. That unlocks the ability to craft a whole mobile vehicle bay. One simple material snowballs into a vast collection of recipes and knowledge.
The quiet brilliance of Subnautica is the way it ties the crafting system into exploration. Each newly crafted tool lets players (literally) dive deeper into its sprawling ocean. It’s as much about staying alive as it is about satisfying a curiosity about what secrets the unknown holds. There’s always another vibrant biome to uncover or a hulking monster to evade.
You never know what you’ll find, but that’s the thrill of it all.
While Subnautica: Below Zero isn’t that different from the original Subnautica on a gameplay level, its approach to narrative is a big leap forward. The first game was a true survival story about an explorer crash-landing on a remote planet and trying to escape. This one is about an explorer named Robin who intentionally strands herself on a deserted planet in a quest to find her lost sister.
The tone is so much more personal. Rather than offering up another isolated experience, it’s a warmer game that features tons of dialogue and NPCs. Robin even gets a constant companion who she frequently banters with throughout the story. That does take a bit of the somber mystique away from the quiet original, but it’s a necessary change.
A Subnautica sequel is a tricky proposition: How do you escalate an experience like this and set it apart? The subtle solution is to change the context. The first game’s hero was vulnerable and panicked, struggling to survive. Robin is more confident and in control. That mirrors the experience of returning players who already have a mastery of the survival mechanics. This time, those players are prepared from day one and focused on the mission at hand.
The inclusion of a more defined story has its pros and cons. On one hand, it adds a much clearer sense of progression to the game. Rather than stumbling into environmental storytelling details while scavenging for resources, players always have a very clear goal at any given time. There’s rarely a point where they’re left wandering around aimlessly and that adds an easy throughline to follow that’s especially great for players who need some structure.
The only downside here is that it can make hunting for materials more frustrating. The original’s freeform flow encouraged experimentation. In that game, I’d often just go on resource runs and pick up as much as I could and see what I could fabricate out of it. In this, I spent more time searching high and low for specific resources so I could craft the item needed to move the plot along. It makes sense narratively, but I certainly found myself less eager to craft items I didn’t immediately have a use for fear, lest I waste precious resources I’d actually need later.
There’s certainly some give and take to the approach, but it’s nice to see developer Unknown Worlds get a chance to flex some new muscles. The studio has already shown that it excels at environmental storytelling, but the more authored plot allows makes for a video game with genuine narrative range. There are more opportunities for wider world-building whether through large-scale lore or charming micro-stories, like an adorable tale of two flirting scientists told through audio logs.
It’s as much an exploration experience for players as it is for the developers.
It’s not really a question of if Subnautica: Below Zero improves on its predecessor or not. On the surface, it’s a bit indistinguishable. The approach to storytelling is different, but the loop is largely the same. Some changes, like the more refined base building, are more quality-of-life tweaks than anything. There are new items to craft too, but the game still centers around the same fundamental tools.
The only significant addition here is on-land gameplay, where players traverse icy surfaces and maintain body temperature instead of oxygen. Despite not being able to move around in every direction, these sections are still a clean fit with the formula. It’s more change of scenery than anything and it allows the game to tuck more surprising discoveries into caves and abandoned research bases.
Instead of reimagining the experience or expanding the original, Sub Zero simply opens a different entryway into the series. It invites skeptical players in with the promise of a more traditional game with a set endpoint and lets their curiosity take over from there. Fans of the first game might find that it’s a little too similar, but it’s a more welcoming experience for newcomers who want to ease into an unfamiliar genre.
Even with that tweak, Subnautica: Sub Zero doesn’t lose sight of what’s so engrossing about the series. It may have bigger, more deliberate set pieces, but it remains one of the most chill (and at times most frightening) gaming experiences around. Players can still turn survival meters like hunger off entirely or simply hop into a pure creative mode, really letting the game’s gorgeous world and relaxing score wash over them.
Both the ocean depths and the survival genre can be intimidating, but Subnautica: Below Zero turns each into a warm, welcoming experience. 8/10.
Subnautica: Below Zero will be released on May 14, 2021
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: When it comes to video games, Inverse values a few qualities that other sites may not. For instance, we care about hours over money. Many new AAA games have similar costs, which is why we value the experience of playing more than price comparisons. We don’t value grinding and fetch quests as much as games that make the most out of every level. We also care about the in-game narrative more than most. If the world of a video game is rich enough to foster sociological theories about its government and character backstories, it’s a game we won’t be able to stop thinking about, no matter its price or popularity. We won’t punch down. We won’t evaluate an indie game in the same way we will evaluate a AAA game that’s produced by a team of thousands. We review games based on what’s available in our consoles at the time. And finally, we have very little tolerance for junk science. (Magic is always OK.)