When Subnautica came out of early access for its full launch in January of 2018, it was met with widespread acclaim from numerous critics and fans of the survival genre – and for a good reason. There’s little on the market that can emulate the feeling you get from playing something like Subnautica. An undeniably alluring combination of oppressive isolation and peaceful ambience as you explore the depths of Planet 4546B. Subnautica: Below Zero relies on much of the same atmosphere and tension that made the first game special while adding an array of new additions that further strengthen the formula.
Set one year after the first game, Subnautica: Below Zero sees players taking control of Robin Ayou, trying to find what led to her sister’s sudden death on Planet 4546B. After narrowly escaping death when a stolen life pod collides with a meteor and crash lands in a frigid region of the planet, Robin is forced to adapt to the cold climate to survive and find answers. Although the story slowly unfolds as you explore new biomes and hunt for clues, you’re never really pointed in a particular direction, and the game doesn’t hold your hand along the way. Instead, most of the world-building and set dressing you’ll find comes in the form of environmental story-telling and collectibles. Recorded PDAs, research notes, abandoned bases, and information you find via scanning are all things that contribute to painting a picture of what has happened.
While the core narrative thread of finding out what happened to Sam is resolved in a relatively anti-climactic way, Below Zero’s focus shifts to another thread that links back to the first game in interesting and engaging ways that fans will adore. Ultimately, it’s a serviceable narrative that serves as a basis for the core gameplay but suffers a bit from some hit-and-miss voice acting and lacks some of the intrigue that came with the first game’s plot.
At its core, Subnautica: Below Zero is a deep-sea survival game with a heavy emphasis on exploration and base building. As you explore the different biomes, you’ll gather food, water, and materials to create tools and vehicles that allow you to go deeper for story progression, rare resources, and crafting opportunities. It’s a simple yet addictive gameplay loop that always begs you to do just one more thing before ending a play session, and that one more thing almost always snowballs into another hour of play. There’s always something to work towards in Below Zero, and that was what always kept me coming back for more. The most frustrating thing about it is the inventory and crafting UI, preventing you from crafting multiple of the same item at once and being a pain to navigate and manage in some circumstances.
Aside from keeping your food, water, and oxygen levels high at all times, there’s also all sorts of wildlife native to Planet 4546B. Some of it is completely harmless, like the adorable Penglings and the cheeky Sea Monkeys that try to steal and swim away with your items, but others are out for blood and will attack you on-site when venturing into their territories. Many of these monsters become less terrifying as you obtain better vehicles and means to circumvent them. Still, nothing will ever take away from the terror you experience when encountering leviathan class creatures. These behemoth sized beings can only be found in the deepest depths of Below Zero’s world, but the sense of awe and dread they fill you with is a feeling that is one of the best parts of Subnautica.
New to Below Zero is a heavy emphasis on land exploration as well as the regular underwater stuff. Research centers and bases dot the frozen wastelands above the ocean, with their unique predators and wildlife to encounter. While not nearly as expansive as the numerous biomes found in the sea, these areas provide a much-needed break from all the swimming and existential terror that comes with exploring the ever-expanding depths. While above water, you’ll have to find ways to keep yourself warm, whether that be through crafting a new set of gear, making smart use of the PRAWN Suit, or taking advantage of the environment. There’s a lot to think about at any given time, but that makes preparation in Below Zero feel rewarding and well worth the effort.
As you slowly unlock new tools and vehicles to fabricate, you’ll also gain the ability to create structures underwater. This means that you can build an underwater base almost anywhere as long as you have the resources. The core building system is intuitive, easy to use, and heavily customizable. For example, suppose you’re regularly using the scanner when you explore. In that case, you’ll quickly unlock new types of furniture and room layouts to use for your center of operations. It’s easy to get excited at all the potential building opportunities as you play and provides a nice break from the exploration and story if that’s what you’re looking for.
As terrifying as the ocean may be to some, it’s home to some of the most beautiful, jaw-dropping environments you could ever hope to see. Below Zero capitalizes on providing all sorts of gorgeous biomes to explore that feel visually and tonally distinct. The harsh sunlight punctuates the dark-green tinge of the Lilly Pad Islands as huge whale-like creatures swim overhead. In contrast, the Crystal Caverns are laced with purple shards, creating massive natural formations of violet that also cover the predators that lurk within its depths. Below Zero is constantly a feast for the eyes, and it’s hard not to get mesmerized by the equally beautiful soundtrack. It’s a shame that visual bugs pop up quite frequently to pull you right out of it. It’s inevitable in a game as big and expansive as this, but it’s even more noticeable when your entranced state is suddenly shattered because Robin can’t climb a ladder properly.
THE PC VERSION OF THIS GAME WAS PLAYED FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW. A DIGITAL COPY OF THE GAME WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.
In a genre that often isn’t for everyone, it’s hard to see who wouldn’t enjoy what Subnautica: Below Zero has to offer. It flourishes an enthralling sense of exploration and progression with a serviceable narrative to boot. It’s not without its flaws, but there’s nothing quite like it besides its predecessor, perfectly encapsulating the curiosity and dread that comes with exploring the deep.
Addictive exploration and progression
Diverse biomes and strong world-building
Land segments provide a much-needed break from the water