Subterrain Review

By Mark Delaney, 2 years ago
The survival genre has found tremendous growth among indie game studios over the past few years. It feels like every few weeks brings us another downloadable foray into some terrible situation and demands we feed, warm, and defend ourselves. The latest of these sims is Pixelore's Subterrain. Compared to its genre counterparts, Subterrain is often a deeper, more realistic simulation of what surviving dire straits may be like. Unfortunately, and perhaps counter-intuitively, that isn't always a good thing.

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Subterrain is a top-down survival title with some roots in horror and twin-stick combat. Although the game never tries to really instill a sense of fear or dread, its dilapidated, shadowy setting certainly leads to plenty of tense moments. You play as Dr. West, the last man standing on a research colony on Mars. The first moments of the game's optional tutorial reveal its many intimidating systems at play. Survival games are known for an abundance of measures to take into account, inventory to manage, and risk/reward dynamics of carrying one item versus another. Things like West's warmth, oxygen, fatigue, hunger, and even bathroom breaks must all be juggled endlessly during the game's open-ended structure. Subterrain is full of these systems and many more, to the extent that diehard fans of the genre will find a lot to love but few else will agree.

The game's user interface isn't welcoming. More than an hour was spent with the game just getting to grips with its countless mechanics that are poorly explained during the tutorial. Crucial things like item crafting and the busy HUD are explained via text boxes and menus; although those might seem self-explanatory, they combine with a mishandled controller scheme to make for a frustrating first act.

Menus. Menus everywhere.Menus. Menus everywhere.

After this tutorial, ready or not, you're transported to the game's safe haven hub of the Central Control room. From here you venture downstairs to partitioned wings of the facility or take a tram to any of Mars' many stations around the colony, from shopping districts to biological research labs and 3D printing rooms. This openness makes for one of the better aspects of Subterrain as it allows you to progress and uncover the endgame in your own way. The story is merely delivered via text-based monologues, which makes it quite a bore for anyone seeking some audio design beyond the game's simplistic sound effects and repetitive soundtrack.

Lost in endless rust-colored hallways without an understanding of where to go and what to do made for a frustrating experience, which only worsened the droning of the same song over and over again when not in combat. That combat, by the way, is pretty boring too. With so much else involved in the game's make-up, the game might have been better without any combat system or vaguely zombie-like enemies that it has. The survival aspects are difficult or at least time-consuming to grasp, but once you understand them, those parts fit well. Fending off the monsters lurking across the colony never felt like more than an annoyance.

You can only see in real-time what is within your field of vision, leading to plenty of sneak attacks if you're careless.You can only see in real-time what is within your field of vision, leading to plenty of sneak attacks if you're careless.

To this point, it's likely I seem harsh on Subterrain. I don't mean to sound critical of the entire package, as it has many facets that impress and even outdo other games within its genre. If you do find an understanding of the sea of systems, HUD items, and mechanics — many of which are infrequently used and thus occasionally needing relearning — what remains is an astoundingly deep and often unforgiving experience. The flow of the game demands constant upkeep. You'll always be battling basic physiological needs and you'll come up short if you trek off for a big mission without the right items in your inventory. There are four difficulty modes with the most difficult of these limiting how you can save your progress; like a lot of the game, this is either a worthy challenge or unneeded obstruction depending on how much you appreciate the genre.

The achievement list is one that focuses largely on reaching milestones for various mechanics — 3D print items and growing fruits and vegetables. It even asks you to use toilets ten times in a single playthrough. With understanding and a knack for survival, most of these will simply come with time. The hang-ups come in beating the game in the Kubrickian ultraviolence difficulty mode, as well as another with permadeath enabled. Most notably is this list gives anyone on the fence a good indication for how much the gameplay accounts. If you think its confusing systems and HUD aren't as bad as I've made them sound, the achievement list may convince you to buy Subterrain.

Summary

There are likely one of two camps with which to align yourself with regard to Subterrain. The first is comprised of those who haven't the patience to understand or appreciate a game that goes to great but confusing lengths to simulate a true survival experience. The second is made up of those who can look past what might be a slow and sometimes painful opening in hopes of getting their heads on straight soon enough to enjoy what remains. It would seem the former group is much larger than the latter as they pertain to Subterrain. No one said survival would be easy, but since it's still a game, it should ultimately be more fun than it is.
3 / 5
Subterrain
Positives
  • Abundant and complex systems for diehard genre fans
  • Great difficulty modes including permadeath
Negatives
  • Those same abundant and complex systems will drive many away
  • Minimal sound design leads to little atmosphere
  • Enemy encounters feel tacked on
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent seven hours on Mars, most of them lost and needing to pee. He collected 17 of 49 achievements for 170 gamerscore. An Xbox One download code was provided by the ID@Xbox team for the purpose of this review.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is the host of the community game club TA Playlist. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his family. He almost never writes in the third person.