The depths are treacherous. You don’t know which monster is hidden in the blackened water, but you can hear its terrible roar getting louder as you dive deeper. You know you are getting closer to your goal, but you feel that the monster is even closer. Subnautica: Below Zero gives an ongoing sense of wonder and terror in its beautifully designed underwater exploration. Every dive is a powerful experience of discovery and self-preservation. When you catch your breath again you feel like you’ve achieved something, solved a new mystery and maybe found what you need to make your next dive even more rewarding.
Below zero is what any sequel should be, cleverly building on the established core formula to make the new content feel just as exciting and unpredictable. True to the first game, the main attraction is again an expansive alien sea that shines with its unusual aquatic life, but the survival gameplay is much more impressive now that it has been streamlined in such a way that it is rarely stressful or annoying. Although I had to fry a fish regularly to satisfy my hunger and / or thirst, I spent most of my time doing what I wanted, at my own comfortable pace and in the order that made most sense to me was.
A well-written science fiction story is in step with the element of discovery and often overlaps in ways that affect your attitude towards the world and your abilities. Unknown worlds lead the player in a fantastic way to sights without clearly marking them. Audio and visual cues are used effectively so that you often wonder what something is or where it could lead.
I don’t want to spoil what the discoveries are, but many are great to design and stretch both the narrative and gameplay in directions that make the experience even more exciting. While I’ve always been on the lookout for the next big thing, the moment-to-moment collection of crafting materials is immensely satisfying and more balanced than that of the original game. Some discoveries have many layers. Take the weirdly named Sea Monkey, for example. You learn early on that this curious animal likes your devices and will take them away if you get too close. Later in the game (and after you develop a more meaningful connection to the world through a major narrative act) the Sea Monkey becomes your friend and collects supplies for you. The gameplay sometimes evolves with the story, and is another way Below Zero really impresses with its unexpected depth.
I also appreciated how stress free most of the craft jobs are. In the first game, you were immediately assigned to fix a number of broken systems in your ship. In Below Zero, everything works as it should from the start. Instead, the focus is on letting you explore for yourself and build exactly what you want. This type of exemption applies to most of the game, even if it reduces the frustration of exploring. Yes, it’s an expansive sea, but each area is subtly designed differently so it’s easy to know exactly where you are and what materials are there (especially if you can look for them). Another nice touch is if you die with a beacon you can find your way back. The air bubble is also much more effective this time.
Not all discoveries take place underwater. After crash landing on planet 4546B, xenologist (and protagonist) Robin Ayou gives us an instant glimpse into one of the sequel’s most effective surprises: real exploration on foot. From time to time you step into land and see what surprises await you. They can be as meaningful and unexpected as anything you find in the sea. The on-foot gameplay is as simple as it gets (walking and interacting), but these sequences give a more complete view of this ferocious alien world and help change the flow of gameplay.
As more of this planet is explored, you will develop the ability to build your own habitats, personalize them to your liking (including posters and items you find) and ultimately become a master of the sea capable of being Staring at an animal doing this would cause Jaws to twist its tail and swim away in fright. You know, these creatures almost always attack when you least expect it and give Below Zero some of the best jumping scares out there and they’re not even scripted.
Some of these screeching encounters don’t go exactly as intended by Unknown Worlds and can get unexpectedly hilarious if an animal clearly forgets how to navigate a room, hit walls, and fly around chaotically. Some escapes are also churned up by graphic pop-in, which causes a giant iceberg to materialize out of the air right in front of you. Below zero it’s a bit rough around the edges, but most of my playthrough was nice and smooth.
I can’t emphasize how fun each dive can be and how fulfilling the discoveries are. Below Zero is one of the best survival games I’ve ever played. It shows how powerful player freedom can be in a world you want to explore every inch.