‘Subnautica: Below Zero’ review: frigid terror that’s roiling in the deep

We’ve tackled ‘Below Zero’’s frightful icy depths, but was it worth the dip?

Described as “a new chapter in the Subnautica universe”, Subnautica: Below Zero started life as a DLC for Unknown Worlds’ 2018 underwater survival smash hit Subnautica. Yet, as is the fate of many modern projects, the scope of the game grew beyond typical expectations for an add-on and Below Zero became its own beast.

Regardless, Below Zero shares a whole lot of DNA with its predecessor, so fans will feel right at home as they dive for Bladderfish, sneak around Creepvine clusters and smash rocks to collect ingredients to craft crucial tools. At the start, you can pick between four modes depending on your familiarity. Survival is the base game, but there’s also a permadeath Hardcore mode and a Creative suite if you prefer exploring without constraints.

It’s an extremely familiar game, but Below Zero does attempt to distance itself from its revered sibling by providing a new biome. The planet our voiced protagonist Robin Ayou crash lands on in the opening sequence is frosty and littered with ice caps. As a result, compared to Subnautica, players will spend a lot more time exploring dry land.

The gameplay consequence of this biome change is that players will have to mind their temperature as well as their oxygen levels. At the start, you’ll encounter small penguin-covered sheets of ice that threaten pneumonia, but you’ll eventually find story-rich deserted stations, where you’ll have to dart inside the remaining buildings to stay toasty.

This is also where you’ll meet your first NPC, who is fully voice-acted and makes quite the startling introduction. As teased by the trailers, another way in which Below Zero attempts to break new ground is through its narrative ambitions, weaving a grander plot than the original, alongside scripted sequences and conversations with charming characters.

This overall gregariousness was tricky for me to reconcile. While Subnautica had a very interesting story, one of its hallmarks was its melancholic loneliness. My favourite memories involved floating in the deep with bubbles gliding past my ears. You can definitely still immerse and unnerve yourself in the vast expanse of the sea in Below Zero, but there’s a more structured narrative on top of the exploration – but as interesting as the story is, it does occasionally get in the way.

Subnautica: Below Zero
Subnautica: Below Zero. Credit: Unknown Worlds Entertainment

The game does get off to a good start, though. Below Zero’s opening hours are methodical, moody and very evocative of the original. You’ll follow a charming difficulty curve as you dive, grab resources, upgrade and dive deeper. The gameplay loop is just as moreish as the original. Be prepared to lose hours on end to it.

Along the way, you’ll encounter new creatures to avoid, like the charming Sea Monkeys that steal your items and the vicious crocodile monsters. The design team deserves serious credit for coming up with lots of gorgeous new flora and fauna for Below Zero. One example is the striking Titan Holefish, which, as the name suggests, has a giant hole in its centre which Robin can swim through. Below Zero is full of these marvels of virtual nature that were constantly piquing my interest and draining my oxygen supply.

It goes against your survival instincts, but you simply have to gawp at this game’s vistas, even if it might get you killed. It’s nowhere near the best-looking game when we get down to the raw textures, but the atmospheric weather, day-night cycle and ASMR sound design make up for it entirely. Up-close underwater exploration is such a deeply compelling premise for a video game, even when it’s tinged with so much tension. I’d recommend it to any survival game fan looking for something fresh to play.

But eventually, you’ll make it out of the early game, and here’s where things get a little controversial. Once you encounter the aforementioned station and its attached story beats, the game quickly throws the book at the player and the pacing takes a hit. Blueprints, maps, items and lore clog your inventory and when you leave the area it constitutes a serious leap forward in complexity.

You’ll have the means to build your own giant underwater base and populate it with everything from cosmetic niceties to cultivation stations. I was excited by all of the new items and my overarching mission, but I had only been playing for a couple of hours, so this content dump was a lot to take in. While it meant that I was never short of things to do, it also pulled me away from the more intimate, discovery-focused parts of the game that had kept me playing so far. I started to long for the simplicity of the original as I pinned important crafting recipes to my screen and got down to the grind. I just wanted to float and freak myself out in the gloomy depths.

Subnautica: Below Zero
Subnautica: Below Zero. Credit: Unknown Worlds Entertainment

It didn’t take long before I had a cool upgraded seafaring truck, a travelling companion, and an array of high-tech tools and equipment that started to trivialise a lot of my in-game worries relating to the briny deep. I was certainly having fun, but I was also recklessly darting through caves and no longer feeling the fear of encountering the unknown.

This can be summed up by a handy tool called the Mineral Detector, which led me to the resources I needed instead of letting me discover them naturally. As a result, my gameplay became more about ticking off a checklist and visiting specific spots than pure exploration. And despite the new locations on land being interesting to explore, it became abundantly clear that all of Subnautica’s magic is in the water itself.

Ultimately, a lot of my gripes with Below Zero stem from the fact that I’ve been spoiled by the original Subnautica. I’m sure that new players will no doubt delight in its world and enjoy such an innovative take on the survival genre, but I’d suggest they play the original first.

‘Subnautica: Below Zero’ is out now on PS4/5, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Switch, PC and Mac.

The Verdict

The foundation of Subnautica: Below Zero is just as fun as its predecessor, but not every innovation is effective, and the more intrusive story may turn off players who adored the enrapturing loneliness of the original. New players could easily lose weeks to this superb survival game, but Subnautica veterans might not find enough content in Below Zero to convince them to leave the warmer climes behind.

Pros

  • An interesting story populated with charming characters
  • The moreish Subnautica gameplay loop remains
  • It’s more of the same for fans of the original

Cons

  • Below Zero’s new features don’t amount to much
  • The story can get in the way of the atmosphere
  • Some new tools strip the terror from exploration
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