The first two games I owned for the original PlayStation console were Gex: Enter the Gecko and Descent.
Sublevel Zero hearkens back to one of these two titles. Hint: there are no wise-ass amphibians to be found. Sublevel Zero is a simple dungeon explore, but like Descent before it, you explore your environment in fully realized 6 dimensions. The game has all the trappings of a rogue-like: randomized loot, procedural level generation, and perma-death. And, while the idea may sound amazing on paper, its depth is the inhibiting factor. That said, Sublevel Zero is far from the worst time I’ve had shooting alien robots.
The first thing you’ll notice when you begin a game of Sublevel Zero is the perspective and control scheme. You pilot a ship that navigates freely in all directions. You can move forward and back, left and right, up and down, and even yaw, pitch, and roll with the mouse. Please hold all Star Fox meme related inquiries until the end of the tour. While the freedom is appreciated, navigation does take some getting used to. I often found myself disoriented and lost. Luckily, you can pull up a map of the level discovered thus far with a quick button press. I found it absolutely critical. Entrances and exits to rooms are often on the ceiling or the floor rather than in the walls as one might expect. The freedom of axes fundamentally changes how you have to think about navigation. The map itself was fun to look at. The transitions between each procedurally generated room were not necessarily smooth, but it was still impressive to behold each level’s unique shape.
Sublevel Zero’s gameplay is incredibly simple. You fly around the environment searching for the level’s core. Destroy the core and you move on to the next level. The rooms in each level host a myriad of enemies. Each enemy is easily distinguished thanks to simple, yet effective enemy design. I quickly learned that the drill guys charge me, the pink guys snipe me, and the eye guys fire missiles. Defeating enemies causes them to drop items that you can equip to upgrade your ship. In addition to your weapons, you may upgrade your engine and hull. You’ll inevitably find more items than you can equip, and Sublevel Zero includes a crafting system by which you can combine the unused dregs of your booty into better loot.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much to the game. Get as far as you can, die, rinse, repeat. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with the rogue-like gameplay loop. In fact, I love rogue-likes. However, most have incredibly deep magic, item, and skill systems that make even your hundredth playthrough feel fresh. Sublevel Zero may be missing the depth that would normally keep me coming back to a game like this. The time I spent playing was fun, but I don’t feel that ‘just one more game’ feeling. Where Sublevel Zero excels is its presentation. The art is respectably retro without feeling overdone or Minecraft-y. The music is equally nostalgia-laden, and totally kills it.
Sublevel Zero has good core gameplay, but ultimately left me wanting more. The game is by no means a failure, though. In fact, I think it serves as a fantastic jumping off point for a deeper, more fleshed out game. I can’t help but feel like there was supposed to be more to it. If SIGTRAP Games were to continue development on the game and add more opportunities for variety and depth, Sublevel Zero could become truly great. As it stands, the game is just good.
Author’s Note: This review does not reflect the game’s VR support. Without playing with it myself, I can’t say whether an Oculus Rift would enhance the experience or distract from it.