I’m a little space-ship who wishes to reverse the fact that the universe is falling apart – alright then. This is Sublevel Zero, a first person roguelike from Sigtrap Games that sees you take the helm of a lone gunship as you fly through procedurally generated environments in a plight to stay alive.
My first foray into the game was a real hit to the senses – primarily my eyes – which were promptly seared by the vibrant neon colour scheme that conjured up images of wandering into a brightly-lit nightclub whilst hungover and nursing a migraine. Sooner or later I got used to it and was rather impressed by the visual style as a whole, which seem to be a mixture between Minecraft‘s blocky voxel graphics and Metroid.
I happened to use an Xbox 360 controller which was fully supported by the game. It seemed pretty intuitive and the menu system was nicely laid out. However, I found sometimes that if I wanted to switch between certain tabs, the menu would freeze or just decide that it needed a bit of a rest. It’s only a small matter which can be updated in the future.
So having got my controls all mapped out, I was ready to embark on my way through the sub-levels.
To put it simply: you’re piloting a little spaceship and need to fight your way through sublevel 0 to sublevel 5. It’s no mean feat though, as the game falls under the “roguelike”category; essentially indicating that you’re gonna shed a tear attempting to do so.
Much of the game is spent traversing your way hesitantly through tunnels. It’s often a disorienting experience as you twist and turn your way through passageways and little rooms whilst rotating with them constantly. The game sells itself as a “six degree freedom of movement shooter” and as I get my breath back just saying that out loud for clarification, I can’t say that it took my breath away in game. To me, it felt like rotating wasn’t an inherent part of the “shooter” experience; instead I found myself having to rotate whenever I entered a new room. It felt like the monotonous task of having to pull up my jeans constantly because I’d forgotten to put on my belt. Having to rotate and flip about wasn’t exciting or intuitive, just a bit cumbersome. That said, the “six degree” movement thing did go some way to make me feel like I was actually on board a space ship. At times I really did feel like I was floating around in space and it did immerse me in that respect.
In order to fight your way through Sublevel Zero, you’ve got four weapon options: two guns and two explosives. With the punch of a shoulder button, you can switch between a slow-firing rifle and afaster-paced energy gun that would be more suitable for close combat situations. Perhaps there’s a cluster of enemies: you can choose to fire a rocket their way, or even a grenade if you’re feeling that way inclined. It’s nice to be able to keep your options open, and there’s room for upgrades too. Most often, enemies will drop ammunition for various gun types, but sometimes they’ll drop a new gun. However, as I floated my way over to new gun drops I always felt a little deflated. Imagine having “Rifle” and being given the option to pick up a gun titled “Slightly More Powerful Rifle”; this is how it felt. Having played the likes of Borderlands or even The Binding of Isaac, I’ve come to expect loot to have some sort of impact, but here it seemed a little mundane.
The option of crafting guns is also available, and as you collect everything from pulse rifles to shotguns and homing missiles, notifications will pop up telling you that you can combine these things to create something better. Again, I was left feeling a little disappointed. I thought by crafting items, I would be able to create something distinct, that would either look and feel awesome; or drastically alter the way the game felt. However I could create weapons that fired a little faster, had altered prefixes such as “Razor Gun” instead of just “Gun” that only had statistical differences, and the occasional unique weapon which didn’t exactly inspire a huge grin; more of a quiver and slant of the lips.
Heavily inspired by Descent, a 3D first person shooter that first appeared on MS-DOS in 1994, Sublevel Zero aims to bring the same sort of gameplay to the current generation. It attempts to create a dungeon-crawling atmosphere through its use of interminable tunnels, where you’re cautiously gunning your way through confined spaces. Mostly, it does a great job of giving me a mild case of claustrophobia, and instilling a sense of fear in my heart as I enter a new area, having absolutely no idea where I am or where I’m going. Sometimes you’ll find yourself in cave-like zones, eventually leading to bigger boss rooms which require you to shoot a spinning generator-like object that doesn’t particularly like being shot. Props goes to the map that holds you together as you try and ascertain every few seconds where the hell you actually are. Thank you map.
What I don’t understand is that the game claims to give you “freedom of movement”. I can’t think of many times where I was actually free to move. Most battles involved poking cautiously out of a doorway and firing quick bursts, or just strafing in and out of sight behind more doors. As I sank more time into the game I realised that I desperately wanted some space to manoeuvre. The most thrilling occasions were gunfights in boss rooms as I could jet around and engage in some seriously fun combat. To me, freedom of movement suggests an open map that you’re free to roam around; sure, you can effectively rotate your way around tunnels and little rooms, but this never feels particularly “free”.
Everything from the enemies, guns and general gameplay left me wanting more; I wanted to enjoy the experience, but I just couldn’t. There were too many things that I wanted to change to the point where I wouldn’t being playing the same game at all.
The problem for me lies in the fact that Sublevel Zero didn’t manage to draw my attention at all. As a roguelike, it needs to have a strong sense of replayability. The game is tough, therefore you’ll be dying a lot. Apart from little incentives such as attaining new ships, there wasn’t anything making me want to start all over again. If I compare it to Rogue Legacy or The Binding of Isaac, there isn’t the same sense of constant progression. In these games you’re always unlocking new content and picking up crazy new items which completely change things up. Despite their maps being as simple and repetitive as Sublevel Zero, they keep you coming back for more because of the seemingly endless stream of great stuff.
If you were a hardcore fan of Descent, you may find some nostalgic enjoyment from Sublevel Zero, but it fails to reach the heady heights of other modern roguelikes. It succeeds in offering some great tense moments, and the visual style and soundtrack is commendable, but unfortunately it isn’t enough to stop me growing tired of the game quickly. As much as I wanted to like Sublevel Zero, it’s a distinctly average experience.