Wot I Think: Sublevel Zero

While not the only Descent-style revival of recent times, the six-axis floaty base exploration genre is still woefully underfed. Sublevel Zero [official site] arrives to help with that, taking a more rogue-lite, randomised approach to the notion. Am I spinning with glee, or nose-diving with disappointment? Here’s wot I think:

As a pitch, Sublevel Zero is an instant winner: A procedurally generated Descent-alike, with perma-death. Amazing. In practice, it certainly delivers that, but in its realisation it ends up feeling a little wanting. Fun, mind – I’m enjoying the process of seeing how much farther I can get in a subsequent attempt, pleased that I’m able to permanently unlock different ship types through successes, and absolutely delighted by the smoothness of movement. But there are issues.

The first is structural. The vague story is that your ship and an ancient facility have been dragged through a rip in space, and the only hope of return is gathering the parts of a special flux drive that are now trapped in the interior mazes of the facility. Each time you start the potential six sub-levels, a randomised 3D interior is created, filled with enemy types, and with a reactor to destroy on each sub-level. Destroy that, get the flux drive chunk, and for some reason a portal then appears which takes you to the next sub-level. All fine. Except the way the levels are put together is very odd, and often a chore.

Built from chunks of corridor and room that interconnect on all six sides, the random construction always, always leads to long, elaborate dead-ends. The map fills in as you progress, so it’s only on finally reaching a last door with a big X across it that you realise you’d been wasting your time. Were there some sort of narrative/aesthetic rationale to it, it would make a lot more sense – rooms at the end of such detours that, say, contain a bonus pick-up, or at the very least, are designed to look like terminal rooms. As it is, they’re just one of the regular jigsaw pieces with the doors blocked off. Very naff.

However, to add more to proceedings, there are lots of pick-ups along the way. Lots. Your ship contains a limited number of inventory slots, four different spaces for arming weapons, and a slot for your engine and hull. As you flit about, blown up enemies and sparkling chests contain more ammo (for the few different types), health, nanites (a sort of currency for upgrading), and new weapons, hulls and engines. Each is rated on a variety of scales (say, Rate, Damage and Accuracy for weapons) and you can switch them in and out to replace what you currently have, if better. This is good. Stamp of approval. Then things get weird when it comes to crafting. You can use the same bits and bobs to craft bespoke new bits and bobs, so long as you also have enough nanites for the process. Except, on almost all occasions I’ve experienced, the resulting crafted item would have poorer ratings than the two items being used to craft it. I’ve yet to craft anything significantly useful at all, and mostly not bothered as bizarrely the whole thing seems to be primarily used to downgrade what you’ve already got.

I love that crafting is in there, but I dearly wish it were far more meaningful. I also rather desperately wish that the crafting screen would indicate which of the components you’re about to use are currently equipped, so I can stop accidentally pulverising a great weapon because I thought it would be interesting to try a flamethrower for a bit.

Movement is, as I mentioned, wonderful. You glide so fluidly, zipping around the 3D passages, ceiling being floor being wall. There’s a small issue with the ship too easily rolling 90 degrees when you sweep around to look to your left or right, but Q and E rotate you back, and it otherwise has a good instinct for levelling you as you want to be. Enemies are also splendid, simply colour-coded so you can quickly learn their distinctive behaviour patterns, and fight them accordingly. And for once, enemy drops disappearing makes sense here, as it often presents you with the dilemma of whether you should let the nanites and potential health blink out of existence, or rush into a chamber to gather them before you’ve cleared all the enemies, and risk big damage.

Damage is crucial here, with your life being so impermanent. You can collect repair kits, which will gradually add 25 points of health back on, but they also take up valuable inventory space. And 25 out of 100+ is not a significant improvement. The best moments I’ve had with Sublevel have come when down to 3 or 4 points of life, struggling to keep going long enough to find something. It becomes frantic, careful, sensible play is abandoned when one stray blast or bullet will polish you off. It really does offer good times.

Oh, and I haven’t said, it looks gorgeous. Enormous high-res pixels end up looking anything but retro, the colour palette thematic to the sublevel, and the weapon-fire a wonderful mix of lighting effects and super-simple geometric shapes. They’ve absolutely nailed the pretties.

So there Sublevel Zero lies, this peculiar mix of instantly entertaining and disappointingly hollow. Tidying up the crafting, and making it meaningful, would add a lot. And gosh, it desperately needs a rethink about those unexplained, unpredictable dead-ends. But heck, I want to keep on playing anyway. I feel like so much more could be added to it, and I rather hope to see that happen. As it is, I’m suspicious it won’t hold people’s attention long enough for the £11 entry fee.

Sublevel Zero is out on the 8th October on Steam and Humble.

15 Comments

  1. geldonyetich says:

    I can’t help but look at that interface and wonder if the original interface behind Descent was really so flawless that they had to so utterly emulate it.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      You could go replay Descent and answer that yourself, but to give my two pennies: Descent’s interface was, while not flawless, bloody great. While Sublevel Zero has clearly taken a gigantic leaf out of Descent’s book in that regard, I don’t think I’d go so far as to say they “utterly emulated it”.

      Anyway, good review. I think I’ll pick this up, because frankly even a hollow descent-like is a really appealing prospect for me at this point. And maybe they’ll tighten it up a bit down the line, who knows.

      • LionsPhil says:

        Yeah, I only got around to Descent in recent years after picking up on GOG, and it plays really well to modern sensibilities with a little bit of key-rebinding. Nothing really needs tearing up and reinventing, just small iterations now it’s set free of the shackles of 320×200 resolution.

        • Kaeoschassis says:

          I tend to play it through the DXX-Rebirth source port, which does a fine job of fixing up niggles, improving the pretties and giving you plenty of options and modability. But when I re-bought it on GOG I played through most of Descent1 vanilla first and I’ve gotta say, it really HAS stood the test of time remarkably well.

  2. Poolback says:

    What about VR ? This game is based on what was one of the best VR demo for the DK2, really well optimised and giving a good send of presence. Really fun. Did they drop the VR support for the commercial release ? I remember them talking about it in the trailers…

    • lyje says:

      Given the instability of VR software and hardware right now, we’re delaying the ‘real’ VR launch until consumer hardware actually appears. But we’ll shortly have a DK2-compatible beta branch on Steam for people to play around with!

      • Poolback says:

        Ah thank you sir! I do agree that the Oculus ecosystem is a bit messy right now. May I ask what SDK will you be targeting first ? The 0.7 seems to be extremely buggy on my laptop (optimus …). Regardless, I will definitely be following the VR support for Sublevel Zero, the demo was already a blast.

        • lyje says:

          Honestly, to a large extent it depends on what we can get working on our machines! We’re actually getting some new hardware in because neither 0.6 nor 0.7 work well on our current dev machines. So we’ll know more soon.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      Ohgod, I get horrible motion sickness if I play more than two or three levels of Descent at a time, and that’s just on a normal monitor (though I never did when I was younger, weirdly). I can’t imagine playing something similar with VR.

      • Poolback says:

        To be honest, it is possible that VR would give you less motion sickness than an actual 2D screen, since it adds a huge sense of scale and positionning. I remember, I would always get disoriented playing Descent on the monitor, but not while playing Sublevel Zero on the rift. In VR, I would always be able to position in space where everything is, even things that I can’t directly see.

  3. DevilishEggs says:

    I feared that the random maps would resemble Daggerfall’s earrrrrly random dungeons.

    Pity. 6DOF creates some really interesting opportunities for level design.

  4. WiggumEsquilax says:

    Sounds to me like we could use some pre-made maps. If only there were a way to import those of the various Descent games.

    Does the game allow for pre-made maps? Is there a map editor?

  5. Caiman says:

    Having played this for a few hours now, I’m loving it. Definitely the closet in feel to Descent of any of the recent batch of 6DOF games. I’d go so far as to call it a homage, but with its own spin. Incidentally, I’m far less bothered by the dead ends that John seems to be. Nearly all of them have got a goodies chest, so they’re a worthwhile diversion, but you don’t feel like you need to scour the entire level if you don’t wish. Besides, getting back onto the main path takes mere seconds, especially with judicious use of boost. Definitely recommended if you like Descent, and certainly more promising than the official Descent reboot looks.

  6. zeep says:

    Same here. I’m loving it too, about 5 hours in now. I’m surprised that the reviewer didn’t feel SZ is worth it’s price. In my experience dead ends have been sparse and most times held some reward.

    The game sounds great too.

    All in all this is the best 6DoF game i’ve played since Descent. Worth every penny!

  7. Alisa8 says:

    Love Sublevel Zero so much, thanks for such impressive review.
    Tank Trouble