Much like everyone else that’s talking about Sublevel Zero, I too had a childhood connection to Descent. I picked up a copy of the game from the local dollar store and had a blast making myself queasy while navigating those underground mines. Head tilted to the side as I tried to wrap my brain around the “six-degrees of freedom,” which should have been more aptly named “six-degrees of motion sickness.” Descent was a mind expanding experience for a child like myself. Moving around environments with such freedom changed how I wanted to play games from then on. Except games didn’t really explore the genre after Descent was released.
It’s been years but Sigtrap Games are hoping to bring back the zero-g space combat game with their title Sublevel Zero. And the comparisons to Descent are on point. So much of what Sublevel Zero is, is because of Descent. The game has you floating around underground caves guarded by little autonomous robots that will engage you on sight, while you search for loot, ammo, and the exit.
Yep, this game has a loot system, but unfortunately that was where I ran into my first problem with Sublevel Zero. I found it hard to give much of a damn about any of the drops. As far as I could tell, there was no rarity attached to the loot, and everything I was finding was more or less as good as what I had equipped already. Maybe I would find an incremental upgrade, something that was a few points better than the blaster I was using or something, but it was all very underwhelming, and as a result I found myself not caring about what was dropping. This carries over to the crafting system as well. You can build stuff for your ship but it’s all so very similar to what you’re already using that I found it not usually worth the effort.
“Controlling your ship is pretty satisfying once you get the hang of it, the weapons feel impactful, and the game looks and sounds gorgeous… yet something is missing and the game just isn’t very fun for long.”
So besides the loot system being an issue, Sublevel Zero has a much more pressing problem: It’s actually kind of boring. A big factor is that every encounter plays out more or less the same way regardless of enemy type. In a general sense the game consists of this, over and over again: open a door, peek into the room, and take pot shots at the enemies until they’re all dead. It’s all so repetitive, and unfortunately it’s the best way to play the game. And the core issue of the game being boring is something that no amount of procedurally generated levels can fix, which was one of the developer’s key bullet points.
It got me thinking about whether it is even possible to make a compelling Descent-like in 2015, because the game is actually made quite well. Controlling your ship is pretty satisfying once you get the hang of it, the weapons feel impactful, and the game looks and sounds gorgeous… yet something is missing and the game just isn’t very fun for long. It feels like the devs did everything right, yet their game still underwhelmed. That might be the reason why there weren’t many titles like Descent ever released.
I want to be able to recommend Sublevel Zero to everyone out of principle, but I can’t do that in good conscience. It’s a game with a striking presentation, but suffers from problems that no amount of sheen can cover up. Float past this one, sadly waving at what could have been.
*** PC code provided by the publisher ***
- Good soundtrack and visual style
- Weapons feel satisfying
- Flight controls are responsive
- Loot system is uninteresting