Subaeria starts with a bang. Our protagonist, Styx, has her entirely family murdered in the first few minutes of the game. It’s not an emotional beat of the story, rather it’s more of a mild inconvenience. However, it does provide Styx reason to set off on her quest to defeat an evil totalitarian dictator, this Stalin alike rules over the underwater kingdom of the eponymous Subaeria. Her mission will be long, arduous and – unfortunately – tedious.
Taking place from a top-down perspective, the player moves Styx with the left thumb stick and manoeuvres her personal drone with the right thumb stick. It’s almost an echo of a twin stick shooter and proves to be a compelling control set-up. Taking place in enclosed arenas, game play revolves around installing ‘apps’ on your drone in an attempt to eliminate ‘cleaners’ – automated robots hell bent on Styx’s destruction.
These apps have a variety of forms, one allows you to briefly control drones, another to create decoy holograms for example. This element of the game works very well, it proves extremely satisfying to nimbly dodge a cleaner’s attacks with your left thumbstick whilst hacking into their sub systems with your right. There’s some devious puzzles here, and the need to solve them in constant motion and under attack from all angles is certainly exciting. The action is smooth and – whilst lacking a decent tutorial – with some effort the various intricacies of the game can be learnt. The problems begin when Styx dies for the first time.
Yes, Subaeria is a roguelite game. A mechanic that personally I am not keen on, though I admit, when implemented well, it can be very effective. The issue is that Illogika Studios haven’t achieved that sweet spot of player progress, countered by just the right amount of repetition. Instead the pacing is off, it’s far too slow. Incremental advancement soon becomes tedious, each player death returning Styx to her deceased family. Each return visit rendering this familial homicide ever more irrelevant.
Its effect on the initially interesting plot is absolute, once you’ve seen the same scene or read the same speech bubbles for the tenth time, it soon becomes an irritating hindrance, rather than anything you’d actually want to pay attention to. Your apps and abilities can all be improved, but so little of that improvement make the transition to Styx’s next life, that you know your forthcoming death will happen all too soon.
The roguelite mechanics cause more problems. The locked top-down view wouldn’t cause any issues if it weren’t for the inclusion of jumping. Not being able to ascertain vertical height makes a successful jump a complete accident. When you’re simply trying to reach a power-up on top of a crate it’s mildly irritating, when that jump is a matter of life and death – and that death results in you having to start the game again – it soon becomes unbelievably frustrating. An already slow pace is dragged down to be a tedious slog.
Things get even more of a drag without the lack of a decent tutorial. You’ll spend your time perishing, not too sure why, and then be looking at your family’s dead corpses again before you know it. There are so many elements of the game that are not explained. There is a place in videogames for discovering techniques for yourself but having to learn basic gameplay devices in a roguelite structure certainly isn’t a good idea. The procedurally generated world, refreshed on each death, could be a way to keep things fresh. But when it’s constructed from so few – and so similar – rooms it ends up being just another way of taking repetitiveness to entirely new levels of brain numbing pain.
Somewhere, deep in the heart of Subaeria, there is an exciting and action packed puzzle game. Unfortunately, just like the dystopian underwater world the game presents, it is so deeply submerged that you’d never see it from the surface. Rather than the deep blue ocean though, it is a roguelite structure that hides what works about Subaeria, rendering its achievements impotent with toxic pacing and progression issues. It’s a shame, as Subaeria showed promise.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4
Also available for Xbox One & PC