Dr. West–just West now–sits in a cell in the MPO Mars facility, found guilty of murder after an experiment goes fatally awry. The backup generator is failing, the other cells evacuated, and West finds himself stranded in jail without sustenance, with unspeakable dangers prowling the corridors.
Subterrain begins very promisingly. The gravity of the situation is effectively conveyed through atmospheric sound effects and suspicious log entries, and it becomes immediately clear you will be fighting for survival. Following in the footsteps of titles like Don’t Starve and The Long Dark, Subterrain is a top-down twin-stick survival horror game by PixelLore with strong emphasis on crafting and micromanagement.
At first you are confined to the MPO prison. In your bid for freedom you must monitor your hunger, thirst, and tiredness. In corridors strewn with bodies and caked in blood the tension ramps up; there are no signs of life at all, which if anything made me more nervous. Looting storage crates, fridges, and bins you can procure the items you’ll need for survival. Key cards grant access to certain areas, food and drink satisfies your hunger and thirst, and other junk can be recycled, a bit like in Fallout 4. However, some consumables have a contamination risk if unsealed, and items attained use up valuable space in your bag. Without any real information on recycling my VR headset and camera I decided to drop them in favour of carrying more survival gear.
The controls were difficult to get used to at first, I continually dropped items instead of equipping them, and even now I am clueless about how to access equipment slots. That being said, the combat is simple, which is a relief because much of Subterrain requires thought. An infection has caused 92% of the Mars facility population to become (essentially) zombies. They are quite generic looking, but their attack patterns can catch you out. A slow amble can quickly turn into a sprint as they become aware of your tasty presence. Also you can only truly see in the direction you’re facing, meaning although you have a general birds-eye-view of proceedings, a zombie could be standing right behind you tucking a napkin into its collar. This mechanic works well to put you on edge, meaning that each room you search has a certain risk attached.
The true scale of Subterrain is revealed when you take the tram to central control. From here the whole facility can be freely accessed, provided you have the correct key card! Picking up text logs gives you some back story and context as well as providing clues to where you should go. These are arduous to read as most are text walls, and the font is small. I found that icons on your HUD were incredibly small, but once I got used to it I understood the design choice–keep the information out the way so that the gameplay isn’t drowned out.
That being said, the graphics aren’t ground-breaking. Admittedly a Mars facility is never going to look incredible, and the top-down genre doesn’t lend itself to perfectly rendered visuals. However the lighting effects are good enough to create tension, and the blocky aesthetic does have a timelessness to it; Subterrain will never look bad.
From central control you can power up specific parts of the facility depending on where you want to explore. The more power is used though, the more pressure you put on the main generator. I had a quick look in the generator room and there were a lot of replaceable power cores, something I had no idea how to acquire! Things become clearer though, just as they become more complex. Most facilities have broken oxygen and thermal regulators, so you need to bring life support kit with you. Oxygen and thermal units get used up alarmingly fast, and with the added challenge of keeping yourself sustained and now toileted, you have to be flexible approaching a situation.
Research and crafting facilities open up a multitude of possibilities. Researching an item destroys it, but means you can use the blueprint to make more, provided you have the materials. Recycling various junk and refining ores are the only way to get these. My immediate plan revolved around recycling every bit of junk I could find then making new oxygen and thermal regulators for each facility. I managed to happily ignore the story for ages while I began making the place livable again. Zombies and other infected monsters didn’t give me much trouble, although items claiming to fix fractures and stop bleeding suggest injuries must be more difficult to heal than in a conventional game!
So far so good then. The gameplay and graphics aren’t fantastic, but the survival RPG-like mechanics were intriguing enough to keep me playing. The music which was tense at first never seemed to show variety, which provided the effect of having a tap drip on my forehead for several hours, but I was prepared to look past that.
What upset me was the amount of bugs I came across. I sincerely hope by release these have been fixed, because Subterrain brings a lot to Xbox One. The PC version has fantastic reviews on Steam after all. I had a couple of infinite loading screens, which were only an issue because saving is largely manual, and I’d forgotten to do so… The game breaker for me though was when I used a key card to unlock the MPO Mine, which subsequently locked behind me. At first I thought this was an intentional mechanic: being locked in a zombie infested area with little oxygen is quite unnerving. However after half an hour of aimless wandering I came to the sad realisation.