Sublevel Zero [First Impressions]
The game Descent set the bar for me with what to expect a “6DF” (six degrees of freedom) game to be like, but that was a long time ago, and now Sublevel Zero looks like it will firmly take the title as the go-to space dungeon crawling flying champion.
Descent was somewhat elusive, as I wasn’t much of a PC gamer during the series’ heyday, and once the console revolution really started up the genre of the “space shooter” was still being championed on home computers. The feature that made Descent, and Sublevel Zero, special is the “6DF” movement of the player’s ship: it can move forwards and backwards, left and right, but also up and down. Add to that rotation on all the axes and you’ve got total freedom in a 3D space. Some space combat games incorporate this type of control but most of them rely on forward momentum to convey speed and scale, but the *other* feature about Sublevel Zero that makes it feel especially like its inspiration is that scale, and the incredible tightness of it.
Corridors and rooms makeup most of the landscape in Sublevel Zero, in a sort of space hamster maze of death and disorientation. Rooms can be large interior spaces or cramped quarters with many nooks and crannies, and branching off of these rooms (in any direction) are halls and corridors that sometimes twist and bend against the grain of the level. It’s a delightful dance to flip into a room, move around columns and fire at drones and emplacements all while rolling and somersaulting to avoid enemy fire. The movement is half the reason one plays a game like this and Sublevel Zero has mixed that movement with some clever random level generation and made it feel fresher than ever.
But there’s more. There’s randomized weapon drops, a light and accessible crafting system, and a nice strong difficulty curve that rewards strategy and caution over brazen decisions. The story is there, it’s pretty light sci-fi fare told mostly through text logs you find in game but it’s not awful. It’s appreciated, if anything, just another layer to the onion so far that’s been Sublevel Zero. Music and sound effects are great, totally on point with the style and presentation of the game (chunky pixel graphics, retro chic is still hot right now.) The game reminds me a bit of Devolver Digital’s game Heavy Bullets with its roguelike-ish pixely look, but that’s a good thing. Heavy Bullets is quite good too go check it out.
Controls need some tweaking if you’re using a gamepad, and I found using one to be preferable at times. I mapped Down and Up to the Left and Right Analog Clicks respectively, and there’s still some wonkiness when I try to use the gamepad (the inventory doesn’t open correctly). Hopefully further support for the title will patch up some loose ends, and as this is SIGTRAP’s first title I can only hope they’ll do their best to develop that all important first pool of fans.
Sublevel Zero is developed by SIGTRAP Games, and currently available on PC.