Subnautica: Beyond Zero Review
Exploring an ocean in a video game will either strike fear or awe into one’s mind. Swimming in video games? It’s awful if you have a deep fear of the ocean! But exploring the mysterious depths? Sign me up! Cool fish!
As a kid I was obsessed with the ocean. I wanted to be Jacques Cousteau. I adored the frozen depths of Ecco the Dolphin, and The Ocean Hunter was my favourite lightgun game because it had you exploring the depths to kill big aquatic monsters. I longed for a toy of Captain Nemo’s submarine. As an adult, my favourite Wes Anderson film was—and still is—Steve Zissou’s the Life Aquatic.
The stage was well set for me to love Unknown Worlds’ Subnautica despite it being a survival game, one of my least favourite genres to come out from the last decade. Unsurprisingly I did love it, bar the frustrating lack of direction and end-game resource grind that sapped a lot of fun out of the last hour or two. It was all underwater, after all.
That said, it was with some hesitation that I booted up the new standalone campaign, Below Zero, because replicating the mood and runaway success of Subnautica is a big ask for any developer. Early Access had given Unknown Worlds time to hone and refine the expansive world of Subnautica, and I was worried that a smaller amount of development time would get in the way. Thankfully, my hesitations and doubts were mostly unfounded.
Below Zero’s setup is slightly different to the original. Protagonist Robin Ayou (voiced by Kimberly D. Brooks) is on a mission to find her sister Sam, who had taken a job for super-capitalist tech conglomerate Alterra on planet 4546b. A collision with a meteorite causes her to crash land in the arctic circle, thrusting you into the same loop of exploring for materials, information on PDAs, all whilst building structures and equipment to furnish deeper excursions, just like Ryley did in the previous game.
Having a fully voiced protagonist, with an actual goal beyond survival, makes Below Zero a leaner experience than the original. This can be seen in how Below Zero focuses on cutting down the size of the world to expand on its narrative. Already early on, Robin stumbles across the grizzled, cantankerous survivor Marguerit Maida (Lorelei King), and soon after ends up sharing her mind with the digital consciousness of one of the Architects, Al-An (Matthew Marsh).
Both characters give Below Zero a sense of narrative propulsion as well as literal direction: Al-an puts specific waypoints on your HUD, whilst Marguerit will give you instructions in relation to your location. Both methods steer you towards hard and fast objectives, but like Subnautica, progress is often locked behind researching certain tools or vehicles or items. You nearly always need three fragments of a wrecked object to complete a research project, and they are not always easy to find.
Under the sea
Similarly, progressing past some points will need you to have read or listened to the correct lore entry, or oriented yourself based on a static map to know where to go next. These persistent issues aren’t that troublesome as the world is smaller this time around, but they introduce the same listless wandering that plagued Subnautica.
As you’re scurrying to-and-fro to complete objectives, you’ll also want to build a vehicle for getting around. Gone are the nippy Seamoth and lumbering Cyclops from Subnautica; in Below Zero, these are both replaced with the Seatruck, the little submersible train that could, which you can create individual modules for. These include an aquarium that hoovers fish up, a fabricator segment, and a little dock you can hook your Prawn Suit onto. The smaller but inventive nature of the vehicle makes it a tiny replica of the world: smaller and denser than the original, but still full of bizarre, wonderful aquatic creatures.
Even though stumbling on new biomes is as fantastic as ever, given the great sense of colour and atmosphere by the soundscape, it’s hard to get away from the fact that there isn’t the same sense of awe provided by Subnautica due to sheer repetitiveness. New environments eventually become a mere checklist of materials, your senses soon dull to the new flora and fauna as you focus on hunting down minerals. And in the deepest caverns and hardest-to-find fissures, you know you’re going to either find a plot point that would advance the story, and maybe a new rare gem—but little else.
It’s true that all of this happened in Subnautica as well. But given the very similar route of progression through base modules and equipment upgrades, the fatigue can set in a little earlier for Below Zero. At times it tries to subvert the appeal of exploring the fathoms by sending you onto the glacial shelves to pick through the ruins of various research facilities. Trudging through the snow brings its own concerns: temperature and predators being two primary issues you’ll need to deal with. A nippy little hoverbike called the Snowfox lets you get around, but as a whole the section feels undeveloped, an experiment not fully played out. Which is a shame, as it’s an otherwise refreshing change in scenery.
Somewhat the same
For better or worse, this sentiment extends to the entirety of Below Zero. The new polar setting, in contrast to the sunnier environment of Subnautica, is a visual change, but the core loop remains the same, with a few inconveniences dropped in to mix things up and, at times, provide a new challenge. The story makes the whole experience rich, and although it’s Unknown World’s first stab at fully acted and voiced cutscenes, the characters are well written, and voiced with nuance and warmth. It doesn’t add anything revelatory to the world of Subnautica, but there is still a sense of accepting the past, of moving forward—fitting for a game about exploring areas and mining material to build and survive, but with little incentive to return to them once they have outlived their usefulness.
The story acts as closure for Robin and her sister, the world of 4546b, and perhaps even this chapter of Unknown World’s life. They came to prominence with their asymmetric multiplayer game Natural Selection 2, took a left turn into aquatic survival with Subnautica, and fleshed out their narrative chops in Below Zero. Where they go next will be, just like Robin’s final steps, a journey into the unknown.