I think the idea of crafting and survival games has gone beyond my ability to enjoy them. Even when a title absolutely NAILS the setting, tone, and small background details, I find myself unable to adequately understand the mechanics in any meaningful way, making it impossible for me to even begin, let alone have a hope of making significant headway or (perish the thought), complete the game. Studio Pixellore’s otherwise superlative Subterrain is the latest victim of my appalling lack of talent when it comes to survival titles. It tells a great story, it features solid combat and good controls, it looks fantastic, and I can’t even begin to make heads or tails of how to proceed.
Subterrain makes excellent use of light, shadow, and color to show you a believable post-apocalyptic landscape. From the opening moments when you try to escape prison after the power goes down, the game is tense and exciting because you know danger could conceivably lurk around every turn. Little details like scorch marks and blood on floors let you know that the humans didn’t go down without a fight, while the flickering emergency power and occasional splashes of bright green light indicating a door you can access provide hope for at least the immediate future. When your pulse is racing during an introductory sequence, you know you’re dealing with good design. The ambient music helps to heighten the mood, while sound effects make weapons sound powerful and enemies sound frightening. The writing is solid, and the flavor text in the form of journal entries, personal narratives, and item descriptions all help envelop you in the world Pixellore has created.
The game controls well, and the UI grants access to a wealth of information without becoming overwhelming. Exploration is interesting and usually fruitful, and your character has access to an embarrassment of riches he can potentially bring with him on his quest to slow the outbreak mutating the rest of the colonists while trying to restore power to their home. I say potentially because the inventory system prevents you from carrying everything all the time. While that makes sense, it’s frustrating to have to remember where caches of equipment are located in order to have to go back for them later. Since crafting is so vital to the experience, I’d hoped the game would allow me to carry more of what I need at all times. Instead, I’m forced to deal with a weight limit AND and item limit. Again, points for realism, but why does a stack of keycards count against the item limit? There are simply too many locked doors in Subterrain to make this appealing to me. If the keycards were multiple use, I’d be more forgiving, but since each one is a one use only item, I quickly became frustrated having to make the decision of whether to carry more ammo, more food, or more keys in order to go where I needed and accomplish my tasks. Fans of the genre are going to love it, because the game DOES make you think hard about these choices, and they do have real and lasting consequences, but I want to explore more than I want to fiddle with an equipment bag. On the other hand, I like the way Subterrain handles biological needs and ammunition requirements. THANK YOU for allowing all weapons to use the same ammo- even though that’s not “realistic” it makes inventory management a bit easier. Having to keep a balance between hunger, thirst, and the call of nature make planning your next moves and the routes you wish to take much more complicated, but in an interesting puzzle solving way- Again, there’s a bit to much reliance on having to remember where bathrooms are, or where to find a well-stocked galley in order to eat and drink, but it’s easier to deal with than the carrying capacity issue. Equipping items is easy, and I like that you can easily hot-switch between three major weapons. The biggest issue I have with Subterrain is that it tries to rely on a tell, don’t show method of introducing new mechanics and requirements, one that left me lost and frustrated. Walls of text tell you how to attempt to repair damaged systems, or how to craft new materials, but it all comes at you so fast that I quickly became overwhelmed. I think it would benefit Pixellore to break up some early missions into more manageable pieces that include more direction on how to accomplish some of these tasks, like walking me through the first repair of a power system. Just telling me I have to repair everything then reminding me I’ll then have to make sure all the systems are maintained plus warning me that failure to do so can affect locations I haven’t even visited yet does wonders for the tense atmosphere, but makes the immediate game less enjoyable. Once again, the more hardcore survival fans will eat this up, but it can lock new or inexperienced players out completely.
Do I think Subterrain is well made? Absolutely, provided you know what you’re doing or are good at dealing with information overload. Players who already feel nervous just reading about all of this (like me) should probably steer clear unless some early game tweaks are made. In either case, I’m definitely intrigued by what Pixellore has done here, and I hope to see more of their work in the future.