I have a fear of water. Not in real life, where I should say I quite like the water, but in video games. In these digital realms, water is very rarely a good thing and will usually mean fighting clunky controls, horrible combat sections, and surprises lurking just below the surface, ready to eat you up or drag you down. Subnautica: Below Zero, then, is a game designed to stress me out.
While you can be up on the surface, the game is called Subnautica for a reason, so you can expect to find yourself deep within the water for a long old time, and I’m talking deep deep, like a Jaden Smith tweet from whenever this reference was relevant and funny.
Cold as ice
Below Zero has been in Early Access for over two years now, and is set two years after the original game. It’s now coming out of that period of its life and emerging as a fully-formed and deeply horrific survival game that will put you off ever setting foot in the wet stuff ever again. That’s probably a compliment though.
The game opens up with you descending to Planet 4546B, but a far colder region than the one depicted in the first game. This means you’ll quickly have to find not only food and water, but also a way to keep yourself warm. It results in the opening section being a scramble of confusion and desperation, which ends with you diving into the water at your character’s behest. This feels counterintuitive, but you’re better protected from the temperatures of the world when below the surface than in the open, even if everything else feels more dangerous with no air around you.
You then have to search around for materials, cute/horrifying little fish, and anything else you can get your hands on. This is the main loop of the game, but while a lot of survival games are literally just about that, Below Zero has an interesting narrative pushing you to keep living and making progress.
A story beautifully told
The voice acting that tells the story to you is good, the narrative beats generally hit pretty solidly, and the core concept of the game is one that is so innately interesting that it’s hard to ever stop thinking about. The only issue, at least for me, is that sometimes I got so perplexed over what my next step was that I ended up feeling a bit lost.
That’s part of the appeal though, because those points at which you’re drifting through the water with a vague idea or goal in mind are when Subnautica: Below Zero is at its best.
You’re a small fish in a giant horrifying pond
As is often the case, Below Zero is one of those survival games that really thrives on the moments that happen to you specifically, not the ones that the story delivers to you. You’re going to remember the times where you’re trying to find a new material, or catch a new species of fish, because that’s when things will become truly horrific and all the more enthralling.
The sheer scale of the threats that stalk you is awe-inspiring, and the fact that you’re so powerless in the face of them is kind of refreshing. There are a lot of survival games where you’ll eventually build yourself up to a point where you can survive any threat, and Below Zero has that to a certain extent, but the leviathans will always have you hiding or running in fear.