by Tom Mackey
reviewed on PC
Move Over Calrissian
If you’ve ever sat watching the iconic Battle of Endor from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi and thought, "That Lando thinks he’s all that flying through a half-built Death Star, but that Death Star could be more neon…" then you're in luck. Sublevel Zero is a new dog-fighting, neon-corridor based shooter from developer Sigtrap Games and it fills a certain spaceship corridor shooting void that I didn't realise had been missing.
Memories of Descent
Now Sublevel Zero is actually the first ‘six-degree-of-freedom’ shooter for some time. Perhaps this is my relative immaturity showing itself here, but I had never actually played any of it’s predecessors. Games such as Descent, a similar title released in 1995, were clearly where the developers drew their inspiration. Blasting down winding corridors and corkscrewing around bends whilst launching volleys of cannon fire and missiles at buzzing drone-like enemies was very much a standard set by that game way back then. What Sigtrap Games have done with Sublevel Zero is take that exact same concept and throw a number of modern day gaming mechanics at it. This is where you might be surprised to learn that this game is a roguelike of sorts, with looting, crafting and procedurally generated levels. Now at first glance you might be forgiven for wondering if any of those mechanics have a place in the midst of a fast-paced shooter. But you’ll be glad to know it works rather well.
Roguelike At It's Core
Sublevel Zero begins by briefly explaining what’s been going on in the universe, before shoving you headlong into the mayhem. Story is perhaps the main area where the game lacks the most actually, with the rest filled in by data packets scattered throughout levels. But once you are behind the yolk of your craft, story is really the last thing concerning you. You will find yourself in a selection of different environments all suitably full of tight bends and angles allowing full use of the 360 degrees of movement afforded to you. From neon metallic space stations to lava flows and cave systems, the environments keep things interesting enough that just as you start to bore of one, you’re onto the next. Though the graphical fidelity is perhaps not of the highest quality you will have ever seen, it serves a purpose for the most part, and definitely has a stand out style. The enemies are reasonably varied visually, but the main difference you’ll notice is their attack patterns, which if you are not careful, will definitely catch you out more than once. You certainly can’t survive the game by going all out attack all of the time. I found myself fleeing back down corridors on more than a few occasions.
As you work your way through Sublevel Zero’s procedurally generated levels, you will also come across lootable crates, containing upgrades and ammunition. Destroyed enemies will also leave behind ammo and other items for you to collect as you go. This all helps to add to a sense of progression as you experiment with different ammo and weapon types, as well as upgrading armour amongst other things. This allows for you to customise your ship to your own play style to a certain extent. Some of the items or blueprints you collect will also survive on to your next play through, which brings me onto the games roguelike aspect. You’re chief aim is to ascend through the different levels and retrieve some tech you need to help you and your people survive. But should you die attempting one of these levels, that’s it. You are dead. Back to the beginning you go, keeping only certain items you may have found on your travels. This sense of finality to your ships destruction is definitely a factor in the ‘take it easy’ approach I had when rounding most corners. It is also why it is all the more frustrating when you find a secluded spot, open your map to get a good look at where you are, and get blasted into oblivion by a randomly spawned enemy somewhere nearby. This is a frustration that could easily derail Sublevel Zero, but in this case it has one overriding thing going for it, and that is it’s gameplay.
There is an addictive draw to floating and thrusting your way around a confined space, avoiding incoming fire as you return fire in a ballet-like exchange of movement and projectiles. Now that may all sound very lovely and nice, but not particularly exciting. But it is, and it’s ever so satisfying. Zero gravity combat is at once slow and methodical, at the same time as being intense and threatening. You are capable of such fluid movement that if well timed with attacks can lead to extremely satisfying payoffs. For a game that can feel a little rough around the edges, satisfying gameplay was a must, and they got it right here. Sure I ran into a couple of bugs during my time with the game, these were mainly audio glitches, like the constant tick I experienced after coming close to death that decided to never go away until I restarted the game. But hopefully the developers will iron out such issues with future updates. For now, Sublevel Zero is a game that has at once reminded me how much I love space combat, whilst at the same time introduced me to a whole new, old genre of game. Though story and presentation are a little rough, the gameplay and core mechanics are such that I’ll keep coming back over and over again.
Fantastic gameplay, interesting mechanics
Lacks a bit of polish