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Wot I Think: Sublevel Zero

Decent Descent?

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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.

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founding robots of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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