by Brandon Wright
(You can listen to this article in audio form below)
I’ll be trying out a new format for sharing my thoughts on various games I’ve played, for ones that I don’t decide to write a full review for. I’m more and more feeling it may be more productive for me and you, dear reader, to spend less time expositing the fundamentals of games you may already know of, and get straight to my hot takes :). I feel a good compromise is for me to share someone else’s review (or a couple of them) that I feel reflects a good portion of my opinion and that will go into more detail, while I can touch on my direct feelings for a game. I hope this format works out, and I will be writing these ‘logs’ out semi-regularly as I play through games.
I have a bit of an addictive personality, and tend to enjoy playing a bunch of different games simultaneously. I intend on finishing the vast majority of them (and have a bit of a system in place now to prod me to actually finish games), but often end up jumping around based on my whims. I often have feelings on games but don’t necessarily have time for full-on reviews, so I’m looking forward to logging my thoughts in these types of posts. I’m also moving away from my 5-star rating system to a 100-point system that, while a bit arbitrary, will hopefully capture my compared opinions between games a bit better.
This particular completion log article will focus on one game – Subnautica: Below Zero – but usually there will be multiple games in these log articles. Thanks!
Subnautica: Below Zero
Release Date: May 13, 2021 (1.0 release)
Developer: Unknown Worlds
Platforms: PC, PS4/PS5, X1, XS, NS
Genre: Open-world survival adventure
Price: Game Pass, $20-30 (see Deku Deals sales)
Played: May 2021, on PS5 (finished in 25-30 hours)
Recommended Reviews: Game Informer (Andrew Reiner), PC Gamer (Rick Lane)
The original Subnautica is one of my favorite games of all time (I reviewed it here back in 2018), and I waited two long years for its sequel, Below Zero, to exit early access. I avoided all possible spoilers and didn’t look at even a screenshot of that game during that time, because Subnautica is a game best played with fresh eyes. In the end, Below Zero was worth the wait as it’s a great game, but it doesn’t quite reach the heights (and… depths) of it’s predecessor due to a handful of issues.
There are some big improvements over the original. On PS5 at least, Below Zero runs without a hitch at a smooth 60fps (at 1080p) and I had very few to no technical issues, a far cry from the original where hitching and pop-in were the norm, and I encountered a number of bugs. Additionally, Below Zero is visually stunning, especially in the opening areas. There’s this incredibly pleasing blueish palette used that makes the various landscapes, flora, and fauna of the ocean pop with vibrant color in addition to gorgeous lighting. The environment is meticulously handcrafted and each crevice and overhang draws you in to ‘see what’s over there’ and to explore every nook and cranny. The original game was a looker as well, but they’ve taken the vibrant colors of the ocean and turned it up a notch. Other biomes bring in other color palettes, lighting results, foreign landscapes, and more. They’ve really nailed the visual style in Below Zero and it kept drawing me back.
A relatively major factor to note is that the game world is significantly smaller in both area and depth than the original. Along with many shared mechanics with the original, this has led some to call Below Zero more of a standalone expansion than a true sequel, and the true answer is probably somewhere in the middle. One of the great parts of the original Subnautica was the hugely expansive world and the sense of scope, which practically required larger vehicles to traverse. It encouraged the player to establish multiple outposts and bases throughout the world, something which I really didn’t feel I needed to do in Below Zero – I made only one central underwater base for the whole game; I had at least three in the original, maybe more.
While the smaller scope does decrease the expansiveness of the game, Below Zero chooses to instead invest in making each area more dense with content, and it pays off wonderfully. There’s something to see around every corner, and ocean excursions have less empty area and take less time. I think the density of the game’s biomes does make up for quite a bit of the original’s larger scope, and I feel both approaches are definitely valid.
And while there are less biomes, I did still quite enjoy the variety of biomes that are in the game, due in large part to the new expanded overworld sections. Though I didn’t find these sections quite as interesting as the underwater sections, they introduce a nice bit of gameplay variety and are still packed with atmosphere. Additionally, they’ve refined the crafting and more crunchy parts of the original to a point where the survival aspect of the game feels very manageable. I never really got frustrated with inventory management and the like, and as a result I feel they struck a good balance between survival and adventure elements.
Before I get to my major gripes with the game, I want to praise the music and sound design. Although Unknown Worlds moved on from the composer of the original’s excellent soundtrack, Simon Chylinski, his replacement, Ben Prunty (of FTL and Into the Breach fame) has done an excellent job with Below Zero. The OST has a different feel than the original, with more punchy and catchy tracks versus the more moody vibe of the first game. However, it feels like it matches the visual style of the game, and I listen to it all the time. Additionally, the fantastic audio design of the original carries over to Below Zero. Sounds underwater are very ambient and immersive, from oxygen bubbling up to the screams of distant monsters.
And it’s with those monsters that one of my main problems with the game lies. Subnautica featured a variety of large “leviathan-class” creatures that stalked the seas, inspiring a blood-curdling fear and creating a wonderfully tense atmosphere. Below Zero features it share of creatures, many of which have great designs (the mantis-shrimp type is one of my favorites), but noticeably lacks a good number of the larger creatures. I don’t want to go into spoiler territory, but suffice to say this lower number of more dangerous creatures does alter the vibe of the game a bit. Below Zero is overall a less tense and dangerous experience than the original. This outcome seems to be a combination of having less of the larger creatures, and also having a greater ability to avoid and navigate around dangerous encounters. To some, this change may make the sequel sound more appealing than the original, and I definitely understand that, as I was terrified many times during my playthrough of the first game. Yet at the same time, this tense atmosphere gave Subnautica much of its feel and tone, and while Below Zero certainly carries over some of this, it’s definitely a more tame experience. In this case, I feel it slightly harms the overall feel of the game, but others may disagree.
Lastly, one element of the game expanded on from the original is the story and characters. Below Zero is much more in-your-face from the get go with it’s narrative and introducing you to its central characters. The protagonist, Robin, is searching for her missing sister Sam, and early on comes across another character of more ancient origin, hurtling her down a deeper parallel storyline. Characters are a lot more chatty which may annoy some people (it did to me a bit) though I think the voice acting is overall decent. A more harmful, but accessible change is that the game definitely holds your hand more than the original. In the first Subnautica, you did receive some quest markers (most of which you had to find in abandoned pods), but these signals were few and far between. In Below Zero, you are constantly being handed these markers and while very helpful, they do in my opinion take away from some of the discovery aspect of the game. Again, there will be a mixed consensus here, but I think they could have eased up on some of the hand-holding. Nevertheless, the game is still very open-ended.
Looping back to the story though, my biggest gripe of the game is how it ends up handling the parallel storylines. Again, no spoilers, but unlike the original game which gently guided you to more or less seeing everything the story had to offer, one of the storylines in Below Zero can be completely missed. This is because the two narratives are very poorly integrated which is unfortunate because they both have some intrigue. I was pretty shocked by this as I had to look up to make sure I wasn’t missing something (I was). Overall, the story is pretty weak and better handled by the original.
This completion log nearly turned into a full review! That’s because I really enjoyed Below Zero but personally think there were some poor design decisions from a narrative structure perspective, and some other gripes. Nevertheless if you enjoy exploration, discovery, and/or survival games, definitely check Below Zero out. If you don’t feel like facing the hair-raising scares of the original – or at least less of them – you could even play Below Zero on its own without really missing much story-wise. I highly recommend the game.
Thanks for reading! Keep an eye out for future completion logs.