This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Subnautica: Below Zero.
Are survival crafting games overdone? I would say "no". They used to be overdone; now they're that smear of smoking fat on the floor of the oven that you keep telling yourself you'll clean before the next time you use it and makes all your tater tots taste like charcoal. How many more times must we combine "bit of wood" with "plant fiber" to create "two-story mock Tudor retirement cottage with kitchen island and baby grand”? Why do they always assume I want to build a fucking house?! I'm only here for the thrill of exploration and discovery; it's like wanting to build a house in Disneyland. I climb a mountain and gaze upon the savage landscape below me, simultaneously inviting and foreboding in its cruel majesty; my first thought is not "Well, there's a good spot for the breakfast nook."
Still, amid even the blandest and most tedious hedgerow might be found the occasional discarded porn mag, and one of the few survival crafters I unmixedly love is Subnautica. Why? Because it was full of danger and spectacular underwater scenery that made it thrilling to explore, it had a story with a beginning, middle, and end, and a progression path that felt like we were constantly expanding and improving our ability to explore, even when we were building a fucking house. So I've definitely been among those who held aloft their cleaned Subnautica plate and cried "More, please!" to the exasperation of our parents and prison wardens, and that's exactly what we've got here: Subnautica: More, Please!, or Below Zero, which is rubbing up against the title of "standalone expansion" so closely that "standalone expansion" should probably complain to human resources.
It's generally smaller and shorter than the original Subnautica, and much of the gameplay is the same; the little exploding bastards that hoard the Cave Sulfur are still a massive pain in the oxygen tank. But there are some new features; most notably, the main character has a miraculous and innovative new piece of equipment called "a personality". Robin, for it is her name, comes to an alien ice planet to uncover the truth behind the death of her sister; the evil corporation that runs the Subnautica universe keeps saying it was an accident, but every time they say it, they sort of very unsubtly wink to someone standing off to the side, so obviously, we're going to trust them about as far as the distance between a Catholic school teacher's knees.
But the inciting "dead sister" plot element kind of fades away from the game, unless you're the kind of sucker who actually pays attention to audio logs, and after Robin gets an alien A.I. stuck in her head like it's the theme song from a 90's Disney cartoon, her priorities shift to mainly doing whatever the fuck it wants to do until you can build a new alien body for it to annoy the shit out of instead of you. So that's what drives you along much the same progression path as before: going from a little, helpless, floundering babby with an escape pod and two granola bars who can't hold their breath very long, and can't even dive past a hundred meters 'cos they got a note from their mummy saying they don't have to, to a deep-sea drilling, robot suit-wearing, badass survivor who's escaped from the mouths of giant horror-whales so many times, they're licensed to practice horror-whale dentistry.
What's different on the gameplay front is that now we have to worry about freezing to death on top of air, food, water, and paying the electricity bill, although it's only a factor when we're on land; for some reason, all the seawater on this ice planet is pleasant jacuzzi temperature. Another wonderful survival tip from the world of survival games: if you're in below-zero temperatures, immediately make yourself as wet as possible; that'll certainly help!
So there's a bit where you ride a snow-speeder through icy wastelands while being chased by one of Godzilla's more unruly turds that shows up in the promotional art a lot, but it's more a gimmicky interlude than an integral new mechanic; I mean, if the most interesting new feature of a game called "Subnautica" takes place on dry land, then it sounds like something's gone wrong somewhere. Still, even in a vacuum, it's not that interesting: you ride along, the giant worm pops out, you fall off your speeder, the worm wiggles his big, glowy bum at you with the malicious pleasure of a housecat knocking a cup off a desk, you get back on the speeder, repeat. If the whole game were a cheeseburger, it'd be the pickle, if that; it might just be the sesame seeds on the bun, or the brief pang of guilt from your contribution to the deleterious effect meat production has on the environment.
The meat and the bread and the tasty, tasty cheese is still the underwater fun, and I was getting into that just as much as the last game. Sometimes, "more, please!" is all you need if the original was good enough: diving deep, finding new caverns, picking a good spot for your base, and slowly making the initially vast and intimidating environment your cringing, salty bitch. I do like the new vehicle, the Seatruck; it starts out just as a little sporty runaround, like the original Seamoth, but you can add modules to it until it has the Cyclops' advantage of basically letting you carry a base around with you, but fully customizable, so if you don't want nineteen fucking lockers in the thing, constantly reminding you of how many people failed to come to your last birthday party, then you can-- “CRASH!" ...I'm sorry, what? "CRASH! The game crashed!"
I should mention I was playing the PS5 version 'cos it was the code I was given, and might as well get some fucking use out of that glorified factory-warped panini press, and this version seems to be a bit buggy; it occasionally crashes to - I hesitate to use the word - desktop. So when was my last autosave, Subnautica: Below Zero? "Autosave? What's that? Is that like runner's high, but for goalkeepers?" Sudden change of expression, sound of distant breaking glass. You don't have autosave?! But I've been playing for, like, four hours! I built half my base! I found some really hard-to-find things! I made friends with a shark and named it "Porthos"! What do I do now?! "I don't know; eat shit, by the sounds of it."
It was a difficult few days after that, listeners. I didn't want to go back to Below Zero; I didn't feel like I could forgive it. I sought other games to review; I tried out a Castlevania clone on Steam called "Lost Ruins" that people seemed to like. And that was enjoyable and intriguing, as I set off to uncover the mystery behind why every single character was wearing a Japanese school uniform, and why the giant anime girl boss fights attacked me by trying to crush me with their giant titties-- oh, I just figured the mystery out, actually. Inclusivity's great and all, but there are people who I feel would still benefit from being shamed now and then. So in the end, I went back to Below Zero and just tried to power through to where I'd left off, making do with a nice, plain one-bathroom studio underwater tech base, and can confirm just how short Below Zero is, 'cos there'd only been about a half-hour of plot left before an ending that felt somehow both overly drawn-out and anticlimatic.
So yeah; it's more Subnautica with some bits bolted on, and maybe that's enough, but for fuck's sake, put autosave in your games! Yeah, we used to get by without it, but shit changes, you know? Your mum used to get by without a gastric band, but then the five-dollar footlong happened.
- Has water on the brain: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I love riding the trails in my Seatruck and chatting to the locals on my sea-B radio
- So do anime titties count as piercing or impact damage