Top-down craft 'em up Subterrain appeals with its Dead Space-esque sci-fi setting. However, is the slog through the infected bases of Mars worth surviving?
Subterrain puts you in charge of Dr. West, the sole survivor of a mutant outbreak in the Martian base of MPO. Starting off in the complex's prison cells, it's your job to work your way through successive sectors of the base while crafting what you need in order to escape with your life.
Be warned, Subterrain isn't the kind of game you should get if you just want something simple to pick up and play. It features a complicated and wide range of elements (perhaps too many) and it can take a long time to get to grips with. Early on, you're bombarded with tutorial messages attempting to inform you about a plethora of subjects. These include scavenging, building and upgrading weapons and equipment, recycling items, avoiding contamination, growing food, mining ore, recharging your various power packs, and dozens more. There's even one about the necessity of having to go to the toilet. All of this bogs you down so to speak and quickly makes you realise that the apparently simple premise of just getting out of Dodge is going to involve a lot more time and energy than you perhaps anticipated.
There are good and bad sides to this. The good is that Subterrain offers a lot of, dare I say, depth. For a budget release, I have to commend how much effort the developers put into shaping so many in-game systems and ensuring they serve as integral parts of the gameplay. The bad part is that the lengthy shopping list of tasks you have to constantly keep in mind often makes the experience feel more like an arduous set of errands rather than an enjoyable game.
Here's how it goes: you start off in the hub area but you need to go to a nearby segment of the base to retrieve something (for example, an upgrade for your crafting machine so you can make improved gear). So, you charge up your energy meter, oxygen meter, thermal meter, make sure Dr. West is fed, watered, rested, been to the bathroom, etc. Then, you set off, wait through an overly long loading screen for such a basic-looking game, then you spend the next ten minutes searching through endless crates and supply boxes looking for your objective while picking up a load of other miscellaneous items. Soon, your bag gets full or you start to run out of oxygen (or West needs another of his frequent bathroom breaks), so you have to temporarily abandon your mission, go back to your hub (or to the gents'), decant all your loot, recharge all your gizmos, have a nap, etc., then go back through the loading screen to repeat the process, this time getting slightly farther than the last... and repeat.
Soon, it starts to feel more like work (or perhaps babysitting) than play and having to budget for all of the things you might soon run out of makes the whole affair more stressful than fun. I get that it's a survival simulator but surviving in games can still be enjoyable. Here, it usually feels like a pain and overly samey.
Matters are made more aggravating by Subterrain's convoluted interface. The text is too small and the inventory system is straight-up awkward to use and takes far more time to get to grips with than it should. Sometimes, just unequipping a weapon or piece of armour is impossible unless you have another one with which to replace it. Opening crates is also clunky as you have to face in the direction of the crate (which isn't always as easy as it sounds) and, as the X button you use to search them also opens your inventory, you'll frequently be bringing that window up instead by accident.
Other problems include a monotonous soundtrack which in several levels just goes "dum der der der der dummm" over and over again (see the gameplay video below) and balancing issues regarding some of the vital items you'll need to manufacture. This latter one can be more of an obstacle than it sounds. For example, if you get infected, the only way to fix it is by taking decontamination pills. Unfortunately, these require a huge amount of resources to create. If you run out and get seriously contaminated then you're basically screwed and will have to start the game over.
However, Subterrain isn't a total washout as I'm sure hardcore survival sim fans will find some aspects to enjoy. One positive thing I can say is that there is a lot of game here for your money. There are many areas to discover in MPO and you can sink a good number of hours into fully exploring them all as long as you can stomach the repetition. The level design also does a good job of exuding a suitably grimy and run-down aesthetic, perfectly fitting the genre.
Subterrain deserves praise for the intricacy of its various systems but they could have been implemented in a much more user-friendly way. With all the constant monitoring and running back and forth, it'd probably be less stressful to endure a real zombie apocalypse.
- + Surprising amount of depth
- + Lots of levels to explore
- + Suitably dingy and immersive level design
- - Too much running back and forth and repeating the same tasks
- - Long and often frequent loading screens
- - The text requires a magnifying glass