During my first few moments with Sigtrap’s Sublevel Zero, I couldn’t help but imagine myself in the shoes of Lando Calrissian as he piloted Han’s Millennium Falcon through the core of the Death Star at the end of Return Of The Jedi. While my progress through the confining tunnels and intricate turns was a tad slow at first, I gradually caught my bearings and soon found I was able to pilot my way through the opening stage with the style and panache of the best of them. That is, outside of the times where I was blasted into oblivion.
Sublevel Zero openly admits to aligning itself with a number of different gaming elements. Billed as a “first-person roguelike, six-degree-of-freedom shooter” that boasts expansive and detailed RPG crafting elements, there are clearly a heck of a lot of ingredients that have been baked into this retro-styled cake. Taking inspiration from Descent, the game sets players off into explorative battle in a universe plagued by danger after an unknown event changed and threatened all lives.
In the opening scenes of the game, it’s said that “no one remembers what happened or why,” before going on to add that the universe within the game has been in turmoil for hundreds of years since. Tears in the fabric of space have been opening up and marauding enemies have been pouring forth to strike at any unfortunate survivors. As the pilot of a customizable gunship, players are tasked with taking to the cockpit to dive into the threat head on in the hopes of prolonging survival. The rewards for facing up to the dangers are impressive, however, with all manner of important information and technology in the limbo of deep space.
Sublevel Zero‘s premise is that of a pretty bleak future, but while it may seem like the prediction of an unfortunate end for our universe, it’s a very effective set-up for action. And, as one would hopefully expect from a game that puts players into the midst of a fairly catastrophic event, the action is wonderfully unforgiving at times. One of my favourite things was just how difficult it became at times, as I genuinely felt as though I was stuck in a life-threatening fight or flight scenario, and I’m ashamed to admit how often I had to opt for the latter of those two.
The beauty of its overall style, though, is that this considered approach does not come back to haunt or punish you. So many ‘indie’ games seem to rely on unfair time restrictions to enforce a gruelling challenge on their players, but things are tough enough here without that mechanic. The environments in each stage are procedurally-generated, meaning players have the freedom to explore unknown segments of each new map as they scour the atmosphere looking for precious commodities. Enemies appear at random intervals, too, and occasionally in great numbers, meaning that you’ll constantly want to keep your wits about you unless you want to end up lost and outgunned.
While the inclusion of such random environments could be a real killer for a game like this, the simple yet mightily effective holomap provides a great way for players to pause, retrace their steps, and find a way back on track toward their next goal or objective. You don’t have to be quite so considered in approach, of course, and you could always opt to steam through each stage in your gunship and hope for the best. Depending on how well-upgraded your vessel is at any point, this will go one of two very different ways for you. There is hope, though; and the rich and varied methods of upgrading your ship mean that you really can focus your arsenal to suit your chosen approach.
Having said all of this, I would like to avoid criticizing Sublevel Zero for being too difficult, because I don’t find that this is constructive. Admittedly, the perma-death approach can be devastating at times, but there are more than enough tools at your disposal to promote diving right back in and aiming for better results. However, I will say that the angular nature of some areas can make rapid progression an impossibility, which is disappointingly jarring when a thrill-ride is halted in favour of three-point-turns and steady moves. There are also instances where the pixel style can become difficult to decipher, as well, especially when multiple enemies and exploding attacks fill the screen with little other than blocks of varying orange shades. It all gets to be a bit much at times.
Minor gripes aside, however, I have to praise Sublevel Zero for the way it creates an immersive and challenging adventure that can be enjoyed by fans of almost any genre or style. For the most part it is an exciting and attractive space-age quest, and its best moments sent my sci-fi heart fluttering to recollections of Star Wars and the like. Underestimate this game at your own downfall!
This review is based on a PC copy of the game, which was provided to us.
Taking inspiration from a number of genres and combining them to make a fresh and challenging experience, Sublevel Zero is a great experience that's definitely worth your time.