Before I get started, if you're a fan of Subnautica or Below Zero in particular and you read the review title, please hear me out for a moment. After binging the game on launch day, I would like to talk about things that the game does well before I get into the problems I had with it, if only so I can sound less negative.
Unknown Worlds Entertainment are masters of presentation at this point. Below Zero features a diverse cast of likeable and interesting characters who are all given convincing and entertaining performances by their respective voice actors and actresses. Whether it's a back-and-forth conversation about the legacy a human leaves behind, or a pre-recorded Human Resources interrogation, all of Below Zero's dialogue was compelling and kept me listening. The eyes are not left wanting either, because the undersea world is a treat to behold. Each bioluminescent biome is unique and gorgeous with vibrant colors, stark contrast, and a haunting stillness. These environments are made even more breathtaking by the stellar sound design. Geothermal vents rumble, silt shifts, sea monkeys chatter outside while you snuggle close to the jukebox speaker in your newly built arctic base. Every facet of the presentation comes together to make a game that will constantly make you say "that's gorgeous" and pick your jaw off the ground before returning to the task at hand.
My first qualm with the game is one of the first things you will notice after starting your save, and funnily enough it is one of the very things I praised in the previous paragraph. The player character, Robin Ayou, is fully voice acted and has a personality and will of her own. This is a really big problem for me, but to understand why I have to talk about the original Subnautica for a moment. Previously, the player character might as well have not been a character. It was merely a vessel for the player, and it worked. Both Subnautica and Below Zero start with a crash landing. In the former, you gain control over your silent vessel and immediately have complete control over your actions. You are presented with a problem, a raging fire inside the cab, a tool to pick up and use to fix it, and are let go to pick your path into the big blue ocean. To avoid going too deep into the weeds I'll be brief from here. The original game did not put blinders on you and tell you where to go or make decisions for you.
This is not the case in Below Zero, and I strongly dislike it. In Below zero the intro cutscene features a brief talk where the main character introduces her motivations, a crash landing, and when you gain control over Robin you are put in front of a corridor that when you travel down Robin tells you that you should get in the water and find your survival pod. It's no longer the player being autonomous here. It's now the player acting out the will of the story. In the original game you could miss the sunbeam getting shot down because you chose to not show up to the rendezvous or find the floating islands early with a keen eye. Below Zero sets a precedent that it doesn't want you to be the pilot anymore. It wants you to listen to what Robin has to say, and to experience what is in front of them. For me, this is counter the best thing about the original.
Another problem with Below Zero is that it lacks teeth, literally. The world of the original Subnautica was a dangerous and terrifying place. For comparison, Subnautica had, not including variants, 15 aggressive species of lesser fauna, and 3 aggressive leviathans. Below Zero has 8 aggressive varieties of lesser fauna, and 3 aggressive leviathans, one of which is exclusive to the dry land of the Arctic Spires. The most common threatening leviathan in Sub Zero is the Chelicerate, which is surprisingly rare and is shockingly smaller than the previous game's smallest leviathan threat, the reaper leviathan, by 15 meters. Yes I know I'm dropping a lot of boring numbers so let me put this simply. Below Zero's fauna is disappointingly meek. Gone are the gargantuan Sea Dragons, roaring Reaper Leviathans, and elusive Ghost Leviathans, and in their place is a big angry shrimp, some snow tigers, and a shark-crab with a really toothy tummy. Once I figured out that Below Zero's depths didn't have any massive nightmare beasts to swallow my sub, all the tension was let out of the proverbial balloon.
The map for Below Zero is not much smaller than the map of the original, if it all, but it's a lot less dense and a lot less deep, literally. The first game had ridiculously deep and expansive underground and underwater terrain from the blood kelp to the lost forest to the undersea active volcano zone and all of it was super fascinating to explore. It was so expansive that it was legitimately difficult to navigate at times and many people desperately wished for a map to help them manage the immaculately crafted world.
In Below Zero the developers heard the community's cry for a map! Sort of. The developers did begrudgingly give the player some in world maps with key locations marked on them, but with that came a curl of the monkey's paw. The tunnels of the lost river and magma zone which snaked under the entirety of the previous game's world in a lasagna of earthen layers has been chopped in half vertically. There's a few deep tunnels, but nothing that compares to the original and it makes exploring the depths incredibly disappointing, especially when paired with the lack of threatening fauna as I mentioned in the previous paragraph. Exploring Below Zero honestly stopped being fun after a while because every time I start getting deep and feeling the sinking feeling in my chest, the depths just end on a rocky bottom.
Spoilers for the story in this section, obviously.
It's honestly really hard to talk about the story for this game. The core focus seems to be on Robin and her architect-in-your-head, Al-An and how they come to understand each other and what it means to be human and for humanity to not be alone in the universe. There's also a few side plots involving characters who you don't see where you learn about their personal issues and lives, as well as a plot thread on a certain Subnautica 1 character who I will save as a surprise when you play the game. The thing is, the game's shot at existentialism is really nothing new or memorable. I just got done binging the game on launch day, and I have already forgotten a lot of the core story. There's political intrigue with the Altera Corp being a corrupt mega-corp and all that, but none of it struck a cord. It was never unenjoyable, but the fact that I am struggling to recall the story as I write this review is telling to me. Overall there's just not a lot of compelling plot here, despite the stellar presentation. It's a bit of a nothing burger with a side of baby's first look at humanity's place in the universe.
I would be lying to call Below Zero a bad game. The issue is that the developers made decisions to steer Below Zero in a new direction and it ended up somewhere less interesting than where it was in Subnautica. It traded exploration and terror for intrigue and an exploration of human existentialism. As a fan of the original, I can't help but be let down, but at the same time the experience was mostly positive. I would still recommend that a fan of this particular sub genre purchase the game, albeit at a discount, simply so they can experience the quality writing and see the stunning visuals.
- Stunning Presentation
- Well Written Characters
- Shallow World Compared to the Original
- Environment Lacks Compelling Threats
- Cuts Interesting Features from the Original