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Sublevel Zero (PC) review

Sublevel Zero logo
Sublevel Zero logo
Sublevel Zero logo

At a Glance...

Formats: PC (reviewed), Mac
Genre: , ,
Final Score
8/ 10

User Rating
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We liked?

  • Movements - in all axes - feels smooth, and gliding through the levels is a pleasure
  • Numerous weapon types to equip, all with distinct feels from each other
  • Legacy play prevents the regular deaths and restarts from feeling too unrewarded

Not so much?

  • The randomised levels leave a lot of deadends flagged as such, which detracts from the experience
  • Legacy play is great, but unlocks are not listed anywhere... how good is your memory for blueprints and perks?
  • Menus do not feel optimised for controllers, and are best handled with a mouse regardless of your control method

Final Fiendish Findings?

Sublevel Zero is a pleasure to play – freedom of movement the key to the 6DOF genre, and movement here is beautifully smooth. Environments speed by filled with bold colours and shapes, but also filled with specifically flagged dead ends which detract from the experience.

Posted October 8, 2015 by

Full Fiendish Findings...

When Games Fiends got to play an early version of Sublevel Zero at Rezzed this year, there were elements that developer Luke Thompson was still finalising, hints of how features that needed to be added could work without unbalancing the gameplay shown in the demo. With the game’s release today, we get to take a look and find out how that worked out.

Set hundreds of years after a mysterious event began shaking the fabric of the universe apart, you settle yourself into the role of a scout pilot, aiding your clan in investigating this event. However, getting too close to one anomaly you are pulled into a huge facility, and getting out will involve exploring, upgrading your ship, and fighting off waves of hostile defence units.

Sublevel Zero (SL0) is a new entry in the rather forgotten six degrees of freedom (6DOF) genre, a branch of the first person shooter which acknowledges just how 3D a fully 3D environment can be. Movement isn’t limited to the basics of ahead, turning and sidestepping – ascending and descending are just as valid, and rotating can help you orient yourself… or just fit through awkward shaped gaps.

And as the 6DOF genre is defined by it’s movement, it is a big mark in SL0‘s favour just how smooth that movement feels. Carrying a sense of momentum, you can comfortably glide through a room while sweeping past – or strafing fire on – enemies, and zooming down twisting corridors feels satisfyingly fast. Your craft is very responsive, and flying it is a pleasure.
Sublevel Zero screen
Of course, it’s not a joyride. Each area you come to is likely to have enemies, ranging in quantity from “is that all?” to “how did they all get in here?”. The game’s general display is a bright, pixelly-but-high def style, and the enemies fit that well too, being easily distinguishable from each other by shape and lighting. Before long you will be entering rooms filled with many hostile targets, and knowing who to prioritise – and who to keep well clear of (the constantly ramming miner robots being the bane of so many of my sessions) – will see your runs improve.

In turn, your ship is armed, with four weapon hardpoints to fill – two for regular weapons covering several ammo categories, and two for heavy weapons, also covering a few ammo types; two other hardpoints are reserved for your engine and hull type. Ammunition itself is limited, with resupplies either needing to be found in storage caches or quickly looted before decaying from the debris of wrecked enemies.

These enemies also drop nanites, a form of currency used to pay for the crafting system, where two complementary items can be refined into another – hopefully better – one. For example, your starting two weapons – the slow but steady firing auto-cannon and fast energy blasting pulsar – can be turned into a minigun, firing at an astounding rate but at the cost of damage… and 750 nanites. As you progress and loot more things you’ll be informed when you have items that can be combined; and as which items drop are random, and the core stats on these are further randomised, it does open the door to a lot of decisions relating to using an item immediately, keeping it for later, or just discarding it.

Credit also has to be given for how different the various weapons feel; you will likely find a weapon that suits your playstyle – rapid firing or charging single shots; heavy missiles or bouncing grenades; long distance lasers or close up scattershots. Even where weapons could be very similar in terms of game mechanics – the minigun and the laser, for example – they still feel distinct. Upgrading will be essential, but it helps to have an idea of what you want to be upgrading to.
Sublevel Zero screen
SL0 is also categorised as a roguelike – which is to say, the levels are randomly generated and there is permadeath. Fail a run and you’ll have to restart from the beginning, although with levels not being too long this isn’t as painful as it sounds. There are also elements of legacy play, as collecting certain amounts of nanites in a run allows you to unlock perks, and performing certain tasks will unlock different ships to fly. Sadly, there isn’t a running total of these, so having unlocked things you need to remember them, and likewise you need to take guesses how close you are towards that new, shiny ship you’re after.

The randomly generated levels are also sadly one of the biggest problems with the game. Best thought of a random selection of pre-defined rooms socketed together, the levels will feel different from run to run; however, it also means that many rooms will have unused exit sockets, and your progress down that interesting looking corridor will be halted at a door with a red cross through it.

It’s a bit like seeing how a magician does their trick – deep down you know the method must be a sleight-of-hand, but without knowing what it is you can still tell yourself it is magic. Here, seeing numerous red crossed doors in a room just reveals how the levels are created, and they pull you out of the overall experience. Add this to the general irritation of exploring to find routes blocked – although it avoids feeling any worse than that thanks to a decent map which can help you find your way back onto the path through the level pretty quickly.
Sublevel Zero screen
Another mixed piece of praise and criticism must go to the menu system, which is navigable using both mouse and controller… but honestly, I’d recommend keeping the mouse to hand. The in-game crafting menus feel significantly more sluggish and unintuitive with a controller… although if you’re playing the game with a mouse and keyboard combination this won’t be an issue.

(In terms of controls, you are spoiled for choice. A traditional mouse and keyboard combination feels pretty spritely, and joysticks – both single and twin stick setups – are supported too. Personally, I found my comfort zone with an Xbox controller, which to my surprise is setup to handle all of the axes of movement and remains feeling smooth, even if not as precise as aiming with a mouse)

In conclusion

Sublevel Zero is a pleasure to play – freedom of movement the key to the 6DOF genre, and movement here is beautifully smooth. The visuals are full of bold shapes and colours, making the environment seem to speed by and quickly identifying enemies as they appear. Perhaps the biggest problems are the dead ends, marked as such and showing you where things could go but haven’t, removing some of the immersion in the experience.

Sublevel Zero is released today, 8th October, for PC and Mac via Steam, GoG, Green Man Gaming and Get Games.


Peter can be described as an old, hairy gamer, a survivor of the console wars of the 1990s, and a part-time MMO addict. He has an especial fondness for retro gaming and observing the progressions in long running gaming series. When scandalously not caught gaming, he can also be found reading comics and fantasy fiction, or practising terrible photography.


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