Subnautica is among my all-time favorite games, and that i absolutely loathe survival games. Unknown Worlds’ underwater survival/lowkey horror title won me over because of it's good balancing, beautiful yet frightening handcrafted world, and intriguing narrative. So, it should be no surprise to anyone that I was immediately onboard with Subnautica: Below Zero, the former-DLC-turned-sequel.
Below Zero has some tough fins to fill, since area of the first Subnautica’s magnetic charm was arguably created by how little we knew concerning the world we found ourselves in; of not knowing what illuminating or terrifying discovery awaited us. That first venture away from Safe Shallows and into the waiting maw of a hungry Reaper leviathan was an eye-opening shock, one that’s difficult to replicate. Does Subnautica: Below Zero feel like a tired repeat of already established tricks, or perhaps is it capable of fabricating new thrills?
Subnautica: Below Zero is equal parts refinement and experiment.
The first Subnautica would be a bit of an outlier within the survival genre when it debuted in Early Access in 2022. Instead of using a procedurally generated map, Unknown Worlds opted to meticulously shape their underwater world. Rather than rely solely on the will to outlive to push engagement, they chose to tell an engaging story having a definitive ending. Players still needed to craft food and water to remain alive, and free-form exploration remained a vital tenet, but Subnautica managed to get simple for players to grasp the fundamentals of survival.
In many different ways Subnautica: Below Zero further refines these idea. Once more the planet is hand-crafted, but it’s smaller. The trade-off is Sector Zero feels easier to traverse (mostly) the the Crater. It's a much denser and deeper map, with more caves to obtain lost within. There are even a number of polar biomes above sea-level in Below Zero than feature more to complete compared to islands from the first game.
The general flow in Subnautica: Below Zero is improved upon over the first game. In Subnautica I didn’t craft a Seaglide 'till the end from the game after i had been exploring within my Prawn Suit. In Below Zero, Unknown Worlds ensured I wouldn’t overlook this important tool by placing the requisite wreckage all around my starting drop pod. Blueprints and schematics are spread out smartly this time around, quickening the interest rate of the early and mid-game.
Every biome, and the resources therein, be more effective organized in Below Zero. There’s still lots of harvesting, crafting, and base building to be done, yet progression between biomes synced more naturally, and that i seldom had to wonder where a critical material was hidden. The very first Subnautica was solid in connection with this; Below Zero simply went and improved this portion of the formula to close perfection.
That said, while the layout and organization of biomes, materials, and blueprints is much better in Below Zero compared to the very first game, the art design and aesthetic from the biomes within Sector Zero can’t quite match up with those in the Crater in Subnautica. I mean, the biomes in Below Zero continue to be gorgeous and imaginative. They just all felt . . . familiar at this point.
Above the sea, where things are frozen over in a lasting layer of frost, the biomes fare less favorably. While it’s impressive how good Unknown Worlds rendered different variants of permafrost in Below Zero, the Glacial Basin and Artic Spires simply can’t compete with the superior underwater biomes. As for below the waves, there’s nothing quite as expansive as the Grassy Plateau or Dunes in Subnautica: Below Zero, nor perform the biomes in Sector Zero elicit exactly the same sensation of panic commonly experienced throughout the first game.
Much from the fear and dread that came from exploration in Subnautica is either muted or non-existent in Below Zero. Admittedly, much of that's because of diminished returns. We know there are leviathans lurking in the depths. The worry from the unknown just isn’t because an issue anymore, despite there being fresh, new threats in Below Zero more than happy to drown our hopes. In a way it’s merely part of being a sequel: you are able to only repeat the same trick so often before it might be stale.
Thankfully, Below Zero manages to feel nearly as exciting and captivating to play since it's predecessor. The narrative that drives Below Zero forward is much more involved than the one from the first game. Out of the gate, Robin is a better realized and actualized protagonist than Ryley has ever been. Her journey to Planet 4546B to discover what went down to her sister bucks the usual survival genre tropes since Robin is simply not in need of rescue, and the story is the greater because of this.
The tale has a couple of divergent branches that come together to form a satisfying conclusion, and each does an excellent job of pushing players along, guiding them from biome to biome in Robin’s quest for answers and closure. The main path forward isn’t always to “go deeper” – the story often subverts this particular area of the formula. As a matter of fact, the primary thread involving Robin’s look for her sister largely takes place on land during the other half from the tale.
A second, parallel (though just like critical) narrative branch requires players to dive deeper and deeper into Sector Zero’s icy ocean blue. This portion of Subnautica: Below Zero works exactly like it did within the first game. You’ll need better equipment, modules, and vehicles to survive the crushing depths, and you’ll earn these upgrades by – you got it right – going deeper and deeper. The formula worked superbly in Subnautica, why change it here?
Oh, but you will find changes within Below Zero.
One from the largest changes made to the seafaring area of the game was removing both the Seamoth and also the Cyclops submarines. They’ve both been replaced by the brand new Seatruck: a modular submersible that acts as cross between the 2. The standalone cab from the Seatruck is for all intents and purposes the Seamoth, though unlike the older sub the Seatruck might have compartments slotted onto the back from it. You can include a fabrication module, a storage module, and even a docking module to cart around your Prawn Suit. These compartments essentially convert the Seatruck into the Cyclops, yet you can detach them at any time if you wish to make use of the smaller cab to navigate.
The Seatruck will probably prove contentious among fans, but I’m personally on board with it. It was one less vehicle I needed to upgrade, and its modular nature allowed me to tailor it to my specific needs. The ability to pop off the cab whenever I desired to survey an inferior cave system made the Seatruck infinitely handier than the gargantuan Cyclops, and that i could still cart my Prawn Suit around by using it. That said, I did miss Red Alert/Abandon Ship playing whenever my sub was about to implode.
The increased concentrate on terrestrial survival will be divisive, but it’s less large an emphasis as some might think. Yes, there will be a point where you’ll have to spend a great slice of time above water. Thing is, survival above is functionally the same as it's below. You still need water and food, body temperature works exactly like oxygen, and you’ll wish to craft a habitat to create life easier for you. Many of these requirements are easy to manage, just as they are in the ocean.
I know, the game is called Subnautica, but the portions outside the water are still pretty damn good (the greater boring biomes aside). The one exception is the Snowfox land vehicle: that thing is fiddly. Not only that, but a two-dimensional speeder just can’t rival the greater nimble, three-dimensional Seatruck. But, it’s the only real mechanical blemish attached to the surface portions of the sport. Despite the more muted environments the dry land wasn’t short on thrills.
There will also be a valuable quantity of welcome quality of life additions in Below Zero. The most popular may be the Quantum Locker, a storage space that has a shared inventory along with other Quantum Locker. It may not sound like much, but little outpost bases significantly help in Subnautica along with a shared storage locker meant fewer inventory runs between bases. Furthermore, recipes could be pinned now, which made crafting less of a headache since I could quickly reference my “shopping” list while exploring without needing to use my PDA. None of these additions are dramatic, but they're all welcome surprises.
Performance is improved, and sound design remains amazing.
Speaking of surprises, performance is much better overall in Below Zero. Having too many items floating about outside your inventory or storage still causes the game to slowdown a bit, however i noticed without any stuttering now, and also the framerate was much, much more stable of computer was at the first game.
Do be aware that I reviewed Subnautica: Below Zero on PC. I can’t talk to console performance directly, but I think of the next-gen consoles handle Below Zero without issue. I don’t feel confident claiming the same for the older Xbox One and PlayStation 4, since the first game infamously ran like dogshit on both consoles. As for the Nintendo Switch port, well, I’m just like curious as the rest of you. I hope Unknown Worlds nailed it, but I have my doubts.
UPDATE MAY 12th: I’ve now seen footage and reviews for the Switch port of both Subnautica’s and they’re both impressive. Works out I have to eat some crow. The typical cuts are present both in ports – lower texture resolution, more muted lighting, super low LOD – but both seem to run at a decent resolution at 30 frames-per-second. Color me impressed.
The sound design remains excellent all-around, from the ripple of air bubbles escaping your breather, towards the churn of the Seatruck’s propellers. Fans will note there’s been a big change towards the tunes though. Ben Prunty of FTL fame stepped in to score Subnautica: Below Zero after former composer and sound designer Simon Chylinski was fired at the begining of 2022. While I do enjoy Chylinski’s focus on the first game I’m also a big ole’ Prunty fan, and his work in Below Zero is easily his best.
The majority of tracks are absolutely stellar: should you don’t believe me you can listen to them on your own over on Spotify at this time. You may also collect the soundtrack in-game to hear through the new Jukebox. Groovy. I understand some fans will remain attached to Chylinski’s soundtrack (seriously, Red Alert and Abandon Ship are absolute fire), however they should give Prunty’s OST a chance: it fits Below Zero just like a tight thermal wetsuit.
Subnautica: Below Zero isn’t with no hull breach or two.
For everything Subnautica: Below Zero gets right there’s number of lingering issues in the first game If only had been padded in the sequel. My pettiest complaint? Why isn’t there a “Mark All as Read” button for that PDA? Seriously, with all the things we scan, the waypoints we receive, and dialogue we hear, you’d think that’d little quality-of-life feature wouldn’t have slipped with the cracks.
Additionally, I truly, really wish there is a far more accessible map in-game. You are able to technically find one early one, but it’s buried in the PDA and can’t easily be referenced while seeking. I’m not requesting an Ubisoft-level map having a billion markers onto it: I’m perfectly content with the minimalist map on offer since it preserves the powerful pull to understand more about that helped make the very first game a breakout hit. I’d just like to hotkey the one thing!
As for that exploration, it is nearly as entrancing in Below Zero because it was at the very first Subnautica, but as I mentioned earlier within this review the sequel does are afflicted by diminished returns. I would love nothing more than to scrub Subnautica from my memory simply to reexperience it for the first time once again, however i can’t. I’m familiar with the formula now, and even though Unknown Worlds does test out it in Below Zero the game can’t avoid its predecessor’s shadow.
This returns to the point I made concerning the terror not being as potent in Below Zero: we’ve seen most of the tricks already. The very first time we ran into Steve the Reaper was a frightening thrill. Up to that time Subnautica seemed to be a chill, scuba-diving survival game. Then our expectations were upended violently and suddenly. Below Zero can’t repeat this exact trick since the audience expects it. This won’t be considered a huge issue for most, but I foresee some fans disliking Below Zero simply because it can’t get to the same heights of awe and surprise as the first game.
The Seatruck, smaller map, and greater focus on land-based survival are just a few of the larger tweaks Below Zero makes to the stellar Subnautica formula. For each ten things Unknown Worlds refined, there something experimental and new. There are many ways that Subnautica: Below Zero feels familiar, but there’s enough different to set this sequel apart from its predecessor.
Subnautica: Below Zero doesn’t get to the same heights as the first game, but it’s proof Unknown World’s 2022 survival game wasn’t a fluke. The act of exploring a mysterious underwater world whilst trying to survive is almost as captivating in Below Zero because it was then. I’m still not a fan of the survival genre, yet I loved every moment I spent with Subnautica: Below Zero. I may know most of the tricks right now, but that didn’t result in the experience any less magical.