Subnautica: Below Zero is set to release soon. Much like the original, this sequel has been in Early Access for quite some time, allowing developer Unknown Worlds to fine-tune the experience based on community feedback. Granted, I hardly played the original, and I wasn’t able to check out Subnautica: Below Zero‘s development in prior years. As such, I came in with an open mind.
What greeted me was an experience like no other. I tried my best to survive a frozen hellscape, all while exploring the seas. I constructed vehicles, built bases, and met intriguing characters. Needless to say, Subnautica: Below Zero surprised me. However, there were a few minor issues that marred what could’ve been a perfect journey.
Welcome back to Planet 4546B
Similar to the original game, Subnautica: Below Zero takes place on Planet 4546B, albeit in an entirely different sector. You take on the role of Robin Ayou, a xenobiologist who’s trying to find out what caused her sister’s death. Along the way, you’ll meet a survivor, Marguerit Maida, who seems to know more about your sister’s exploits. Likewise, there’s an even bigger mystery related to the Architects. This highly advanced spacefaring civilization arrived on Planet 4545B thousands of years ago, and only one of their kind, a being known as Al-An, seems to be the only one left.
All in all, I quite enjoyed the narrative pacing of Subnautica: Below Zero. Most of Robin’s journey is spent all by her lonesome with barely anything to hear but the bubbles and the wail of sea creatures. That’s what makes the introduction of new characters who guide you along your path more than welcome. There are also lots of journal entries and PDAs to better flesh out the backstory about what happened.
The locations and creatures of Subnautica: Below Zero
Subnautica: Below Zero‘s graphics, while a little on the cartoony side, still manage to amaze. There are parts of the game where you need to make your way through glaciers or reach bases beyond frozen peaks.
Walk around, and you might spot some Pengwings (penguins) and Snow Stalkers (furry crocodiles). Also, watch out for the deadly Ice Worm that can suddenly erupt from the ground. While you’re out and about, dynamic weather effects will have the winds buffet you as hailstones crash down.
However, most of the action in Subnautica: Below Zero takes place underwater, and diving down the depths is quite a treat. Visuals are brilliant and crisp, and animations are fluid (pun intended). You’ll encounter different kinds of fish, such as the edible kinds that prevent you from starving or getting thirsty. There are also deadlier creatures that can prove to be meddlesome, such as Sea Monkeys that steal your items and gigantic Leviathans that can annihilate you in a flash.
This area of the planet, Sector Zero, has multiple biomes too. There are places with enormous floating lily pads and those with twisting branches. If you’re brave enough, you can even reach darker zones with crystalline caverns or mysterious locations with alien artifacts.
Survival in a frozen world
All of these would be for naught if Subnautica: Below Zero didn’t have gameplay mechanics to keep you engaged. Thankfully, the game will keep you playing for hours. You might not even realize how a lot of time just passed.
After you discover your drop pod, you can start collecting various minerals, components, and even fish so you can craft items. You’ll use your Fabricator to create a scanner, compass, and oxygen tank. You can even make a Habitat Builder if you wish to create bases in other parts of the world. You’ll follow this gameplay loop of scanning objects to obtain blueprints, collecting resources, and crafting until you obtain better gear. All of these allow you to survive as you dive deeper down the ocean.
Subnautica: Below Zero also has different difficulty modes that you can choose from prior to starting the campaign. Survival mode, the default one, requires you to be mindful of Robyn’s health, hunger, thirst, oxygen, and temperature. Freedom difficulty, meanwhile, no longer requires you to look for food or water. Likewise, there’s Creative mode that eschews survival elements and even the story just so you could happily build stuff. Lastly, there’s Hardcore mode which presents all the challenges and even perma-death.
Getting around in Subnautica: Below Zero
With some basic items, you should be able to explore the biomes near your drop pod. Later, you can construct vehicles to help you get around such as the Snowfox, which is basically a hoverbike that you can use while on snowy fields. There’s also the Prawn Suit, a mech that you can use to power through the seabed, and the Seatruck, a vehicle with multiple components that can be attached to the pilot’s hub. Everything works so well together that I couldn’t help but have a smile on my face each time I constructed these features.
Perhaps the only downsides I can think of are related to navigation, platforming, and travel. When it comes to navigation, there are times when instructions just weren’t clear, such as trying to find Marguerit’s Greenhouse on some random iceberg. You also don’t have a handy map with you, and the ones that you find as posters don’t really provide detailed information. As for platforming, it really isn’t the focus of the game, but there were times when you do clamber on top of ice flows and roam inside caves. Running and jumping on land can feel very clunky as opposed to swimming beneath the waves.
In terms of traveling around the world, I actually regretted choosing Survival mode while reviewing Subnautica: Below Zero. I spent several hours just making sure that I had all the materials needed before journeying to another point of interest. Once I reached it, I had to ensure that I had the stuff to get back to my base of operations. It did feel like a hassle, especially considering the limited inventory space and the lack of fast travel options. Moreover, I wasn’t too keen on the base-building aspect. I had to do with spartan accommodations (one room and a hatch) since trying to bring countless materials to another part of the map proved to be a monumental task.
The deep blue sea
As a newcomer to the series, it took me roughly 18 hours to finish Subnautica: Below Zero‘s campaign. Granted, most of my time was spent doing the aforementioned “collect and gather” activities to ensure that Robyn survived. Maybe I was being overly cautious, too, since I was trying to avoid needless deaths. The whole gameplay loop felt like a chore at times, but things did become manageable once I had my Seatruck and Prawn Suit towards the end.
Speaking of “the end,” I don’t really want to spoil how the story goes, but the narrative arc involving Robyn’s sister ended abruptly and the campaign’s conclusion left me wanting more. Still, Subnautica: Below Zero managed to entertain. Even though there were some downsides, the aura of mystery and the sense of wonderment when you discover new locations more than kept me intrigued.