Subterrain is a science fiction survival horror game that challenges you to survive and escape from a colony on the planet Mars. The game opens with you as a prisoner, guilty of an accident that resulted in the death of some of your fellow colleagues. An incident has occurred at the colony, and as such personnel are being evacuated with the final step being the evacuation of the prison. As each cell door is opened one by one, suddenly the power shuts down completely and your left trapped inside your cell to fend for yourself. Several days pass, and as the emergency power begins to run out you are finally able to escape your cell thanks to the failure of the anti-tamper measures on the ventilation duct. Your goal is to locate the other colonists, but that is nowhere near as easy as it sounds.
The game play is essentially a twin sticks shooter, viewed from a top down perspective. It has a very distinctive art styling, with some very nice looking artwork for the characters and environment. The game initially eases you into its basic concepts with a tutorial that plays out in the Prison facility, from which you escape to the games central hub appropriately named ‘Central’. This is the main command and control centre for the entire colony and it’s here that the true depth of the game is revealed. This is the games, mostly, safe area where you find the primary reactor along with a huge selection of machines for recycling, material processing, resource gathering, 3D printing and research. It’s also at this point that all the various locations of the colony are opened up to you, with 14 various sections of the colony that can be travelled to. Initially it’s all a little overwhelming, particularly understanding what each machine is for and when you’ll need it, but mastering the use of each machine and understanding how they work together plays a very critical role in working towards completing the game.
From this central hub, you’ll explore each of the various sections of the base to search for mission critical items and piece together a picture of what has happened here.Other than some key locations, most areas are randomly generated as you enter them for the first time ensuring that each experience you have will be unique. No previous play through, or guide, will provide any significant short cut and you’ll need to explore each nook and cranny to find those essential items that you need. The games design encourages a cautious approach, with each decision requiring careful planning and thought. Before leaving the safe area, you’ll need to ensure that you’re fully prepared for the trip ahead. Gloss over even a minor detail, and rest assured that it will catch you out and either result in you abandoning the trip and back-peddling to safety or, more fatally, your death.
Once exploring the infected regions of the base, it’s a constant battle against entropy. Your Oxygen and Thermal Cells, required to survive, drain at a steady pace limiting your available time until you can successfully repair each regions local life support systems. Your Power Cells, used to power weapons and provide light, will drain faster the more enemies you encounter and local recharge facilities are few and far between. You can carry spare charged cells if you like, but these will take up precious space in your inventory as well as burden you with additional weight. On top of all that, equipment has a durability that ultimately limits its usable shelf life which in the case of weapons means limiting the number of shots that you can fire before needing repair.
Alongside managing yourself you also need to manage the entire colony. The central reactor can only produce a limited amount of power which the player needs to direct to the various areas of the facility. Power modules decay, hence the total available power is constantly reducing ensuring that you can only power a small number of the bases facilities at a time. Unpowered facilities will cause the infection rate to increase hence the longer a facility remains unpowered the more dangerous it will be when you travel there. Reactor Modules, like weapons, can be repaired or new ones can be researched and manufactured allowing you to steadily increase the total amount of power available. This however requires materials that you will need to either mine or scavenge, and initially you won’t be able to power all the facilities that you need to so you will be making choices between powering the Biosphere to grow food or Engineering so that you cam recycle scavenged items into raw materials. It’s an interesting mechanic, and one that certainly adds to the tension of trying to survive alone on anther planet.
It’s not just the enemies in the environment that are a danger, but the environment is to. You of course could argue that other games in this genre also have environments that work against the player, but this tackles it from a different direction. It’s not a case of carefully navigating the landscape to for example avoid falling off a cliff or avoid a hidden trap. This is more about your relationship with the environment. You need it to survive, after all you can’t breathe outside on Mars, but it also needs you to survive. It’s this circular relationship that forms the foundation of the game, ignore it and you’re only killing yourself. There is a lot for you to constantly consider, and as such it is quite easy to drop the ball on something. Fracture your leg whilst exploring one of the outer facilities and forget to carry a nanocasting kit (Used to set and repair a break), then it’s likely that you won’t be able to get back to the central hub. I had this very situation myself where despite limping to the safety of the inter-facility Tram, I died during the 1 hour 22 minute trip back. All these mechanics add up to produce a great sense of tension, and with other factors to manage such as infection rate, hunger and thirst you can never really relax.
I did encounter some minor issues, mainly that on the Xbox One at least the performance appears to degrade over time. This is of most note during the loading transitions that get longer and longer the further you progress into the game. I also noticed some issues with the game stuttering as I moved into close proximity of large groups of enemies. This becomes more pronounced as the infection rate increases beyond 50% and hence the number of enemies in an area grows although it could I guess be mitigated somewhat by doing a better job of managing the overall infection. There are also some issues with the games HUD and menu system, notably the navigation not being perhaps as intuitive and natural as it could have been. Despite getting used to it, it is very much designed to be driven by a mouse and as such getting to the item or option you want can be a little bit of a struggle using a game pad.
It’s real strength though is how the game engages with the player, and the very personal experience that you will get from playing the game. As covered above, once you are past the initial tutorial the entirety of the game is dumped on all at once. It’s overwhelming, but the way you figure out each elements purpose feels very organic as you try and tackle a specific issue. This game doesn’t hold your hand, instead respecting your intelligence and as such it feels very rewarding as you discover the purpose of each element and how to use it to your advantage. It’s this freedom to work out things for yourself that makes it a very individual experience, one that produces stories that you’ll want to share with friends. For example, the tale of my first death (the fractured leg tale above) or my struggle to scavenge the resources needed to manufacture a decontamination pill before I succumb to infection. It is rare to find a game that can so easily be spoken about to people outside of video gaming circles that doesn’t bore them, but this is very much one of those games.
There is more depth to this game that I can cover in this review alone, but I also don’t want to spoil all the surprises that the game throws at you either. Overall though, Subterrain is a well designed and polished product that feels fresh and distinctly unique in a rapidly crowded genre. The way the game progresses is excellent in both pacing and challenge, ensuring that you only at best ever feel like you are merely treading water. There is a great amount of depth to this game that will require you to put 2 and 2 together and in doing so create your own adventure that might end in death, or escape. Either way, you should get a good story or 2 to tell no mater how it plays out for you. My own experience playing the game has seen me move emotionally through desperation, fear and futility towards hope, and now at around the 20 hour mark (that translates to roughly 14 in game days) I’m beginning to believe that I can actually start to hold my head above the water and complete the game.
Subterrain was reviewed with a download code of the Xbox One edition, provided by Xbox and Studio Pixellore.