Subnautica: Below Zero Review – Everything’s Terror Down Where It’s Wetter
Developed and published by Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Available on PS4, PS5 X1, XSX, Switch, Mac, and PC
I’ll be honest, until like a month ago I thought Below Zero was some kind of DLC in the works. After all, Subnautica was so great, making some fun expansion areas seemed like a stellar idea. What a joy it was to find out that not only was it a full game, it was leaving early access! Subnautica: Below Zero, like its predecessor, had all of the worst descriptors. Open-world, early access, survival, crafting, all things from a genre whose reputation was long tarnished by half baked games. I’m here to inform you that, also like its predecessor, Subnautica: Below Zero entirely whips ass.
While I can’t say how Subnautica: Below Zero was during its own EA, I can say that at the time of v1.0 release, it is a fantastic polished and balanced title that more than lives up to the first game. I played the previous title back during its early access, when the game still had that weird terraforming mechanic that was eventually scrapped. Similarly, this go around they got rid of the procedurally generated environments entirely. The procedurally generated map from Subnautica was fine, but did not necessarily add much to the game. With a handcrafted map, much more detail and care is packed into every biome. The experience is a lot more curated.
I’m pretty sure Subnautica: Below Zero takes place after the events of the first game. You play as another crash landed stranded, this time a lady named Robin, looking for her sister who was stationed at a science lab within the planet’s arctic circle. After a brief intro of you flying your little space go-kart onto the surface, the game begins and you find yourself in just about the same spot as in the original Subnautica: an exceedingly little fish in a big pond.
Unlike the previous game, however, the corporation and/or domineering interstellar hegemon Alterra has had a significantly larger presence here. That means a lot more bases to explore and lore to be found—perhaps even other survivors snooping about just as you are. Subnautica: Below Zero has had a lot of time to learn and grow. Every part of the game, from story to gameplay, has just gotten a little bit deeper.
Story is fine, but that’s not what we’re here for. We want gameplay. Subnautica: Below Zero follows the same gameplay style as the previous title. You are alone in the drink with only a tiny pod with a crafting bench to keep you company. To survive and thrive you need to traverse from the depths of the alien sea to find supplies and build a suitable habitat.
There’s a lot of prep before you’re able to traverse those depths, however. The character begins with naught but one deep breath to explore the seafloor and bring back supplies to your one-room starting habitat. This is the extremely simplified version of the gameplay loop of Subnautica: Below Zero. Swim deep, collect supplies, and get to the surface to build something that can help you hold your breath longer or explore better or a creature you can turn into a water bottle.
Of course, it gets more and more complex, once you get stuff like high capacity air tanks and the Sea Truck and maybe a bargain bin Half-Life 2 gravity gun. And to find the resources and blueprints to get that stuff means you’re gonna have to step out of the safety of the shallows and into deeper water. This is where the real horror of the game starts.
At the time that I played it, Subnautica was without a doubt the most terrifying game I had ever played. The colorful surface lulls you to a feeling of safety when you first start, but you quickly realize just how small a fish you are in this big pond. Those with thalassophobia will certainly get their hands shaking from this game, as they swim into a new area and hear the roar of a god knows what off in god knows where.
I do think this is one of the things Subnautica did better than its sequel. Subnautica: Below Zero seemed to be a lot less deep (referring solely to the depth of the ocean you reach) compared to the original game. Open water is terrifying. Many of the areas were within 100 meters of the surface, or they were sufficiently narrow enough that I didn’t feel the threat of a gigantic creature creeping up on me. While this was certainly good for my weak baby heart, I think a sharper y-axis would make for some better terror from the deep. But then, perhaps that was something they were trying to avoid, for the non-horror fans.
Everything else in Subnautica: Below Zero was much much deeper (referring to everything except for the depth of the ocean). Construction was more involved, more tools were at your disposal, areas were more interesting, and there were even sequences where the game was on land. The world was just a lot more interesting than that of Subnautica, a game already among my favorites of the entire horror genre. In fact, I would say you should play the original Subnautica first, because Subnautica: Below Zero, in my opinion, is just a straight upgrade from the previous.