Before playing this game I could have sworn that the most scared I’d ever been from a bunch of pixels was when they were dead and on my expensive monitor. Now that’s still true, but Subterrain is a very, very close second.
What we’ve got in Subterrain is a top down, ‘survival horror’ shooter. But let me clarify something here: while Subterrain classifies itself as part of the survival horror genre, it’s infinitely more survival than horror. I know I mentioned that this game did a good job of terrifying me, and that’s no word of a lie. But that terror didn’t come from the monsters that were trying to kill me – mutant prisoners and guards. It, instead, stemmed almost entirely from the forces that were trying to kill me. And I don’t mean that in some crazy ‘Evil Within’ sense of the word: we’re talking about hunger, starvation, infection, and the list, unfortunately, goes on.
While Subterrain’s strategy of inspiring fear is interesting, it doesn’t mean much without a decent story. What’s refreshing about PixelLore’s latest effort is that it throws away all the ridiculous demons, ghouls and satanic crap that typically (and confusingly) plagues modern horror games. The setting is simple, you play as Jack West, the apparent sole-surviving inmate of a high-security prison after a radiation incident turned the populous into blood-thirsty mutants. To twist the tale, this prison is on Mars – yes, the planet, and yes this is an obvious reference to Doom. So the surface of the planet is virtually off-limits and help is literally hundreds of millions of miles away. Stuck in an underground death maze, you must guide Jack West to safety through this maze, restoring power to the facilities and scavenging enough supplies to survive.
With these foundations, Subterrain was set to be a great game. And it is, at least for the most part. However, there are a few faults in its finish – and much like a faulty finish, these issues could have been avoided with a little more time, thought and patience. So that’s where I’d like to start. Firstly, there is very little direction to the game. Short of plodding through the opening sequence, you’re left to attack the game in any way you see fit. Usually, I’m not too bothered by the ‘any path you choose’ approach to storytelling. But because of Subterrain’s poorly articulated and impossible to re-access tutorials, you’ll often find yourself injured or even killed by environmental effects that you weren’t prepared for because you’re tackling things in the wrong order.
The tutorials in Subterrain are – like most dialogue in the game – text based. That’s not a problem. What is a problem is how poorly they educate. For simple mechanics, the tutorials are too long. Yet for some reason, the game skipped over its explanations of complex mechanics. What’s worse is that all these mechanics are clever – very clever, in fact – but it’s just a shame you’ll have to learn them through frustrating periods of trial and error. Now I know that the trend of heightened difficulty has taken the gaming industry by storm. And I also understand that this difficulty has an important place in Subterrain. I’m not asking to be babied, but at least show me how to hunt before throwing me into the wilderness.
Other than that, on the gameplay frontier things are quite swell. Survival is actual survival, not some gimmicky variation thereof. It feels less like you’re playing some absurd mini-game and more like you’re actually fighting – or, more fittingly, scavenging – for your life. Crafting, learning and researching are all core components of survival. As such, you’ll have to be meticulous with your scavenging and intelligent when you manage your resources. It isn’t often that games get the loot system right. More often then not, you’ll find yourself hauling round loads of junk that does nothing more than occupy bag space. However, when this idea is executed properly, it makes for a rewarding system that entices players to pay attention to both the game and their goals. This is certainly such a case.
The top down perspective in games is also hit or miss. At worst it feels dated and jarring. But I can’t imagine Subterrain another way. Bird’s-eye perspective gives you full awareness of your settings and also allows players to easily navigate the sometimes-repetitive maps. Plus the ability to zoom in and out really sweetened the deal. Saying all this, I can’t pretend that Subterrain is breaking graphical ground. The animations are simple, colours are fairly monochromatic and characters look more like pixel-y silhouettes than actual discernable bodies. Still, this is all part and parcel of the game that Subterrain is. And that’s a game about survival.
The developers weren’t going for graphical immersion here. That’s obvious. And they didn’t need to. The immersion in, and attachment to, Subterrain comes from the fear it causes – not so much from the threat of what’s coming but what’s not. I wasn’t half as worried about mutant attacks as I was about not finding oxygen, heat, food or water. And I think that’s where a lot of Subterrain’s charm comes from. It really takes survival horror back to its roots. Under all the monsters, jump scares and violence, these games are about people. With all its bad graphics and scarce monsters, this indie gem makes a good point: it’s not so much about killing, just surviving.