If you dislike roguelikes, Sublevel Zero Redux is not going to change your mind. I’m a big fan of the genre, and this game hits all the marks of a decent one, but it never amounts to anything more than that.
Developed by Sigtrap Games, Sublevel Zero Redux is actually a console port of a somewhat popular Steam game. This new version comes with some special touches such as a revamped campaign system, some new difficulties and enemies, and a few other changes.
Sublevel Zero attempts to give meaning to your gameplay through a tragic story of humanity falling apart. Wormholes have begun to open up, swallowing whole sections of the galaxy. What remains of our race has been divided into factions at war with one another. This focus on war leads us to forget many of the scientific advancements and discoveries that brought humanity to space in the first place.
As a lone scout for a more peaceful clan, you are tasked to search the universe for remnants of old tech in an attempt to bring humanity back to its glory days. The search leads me to an ancient facility that turns out to be the reason for these disasters. It’s time to go in and find out how to reverse them.
Featuring 6 degrees of freedom (6-DOF) movement, my first few attempts at Sublevel Zero Redux were rough. Death is permanent, so each loss is a big blow to morale. Yet, after sticking through and getting used to rolling my ship around with the d-pad, I was rewarded with some of the most fluid movement I’ve experienced in recent memory. Smashing into walls and corners turned into zooming through rooms and corridors, dodging bullets and blasting away enemies with my array of weaponry.
Combat consists of waves of enemy ships that have the same movement and weapons as you. There are no bosses or even any higher tiers of enemies. Difficulty comes more from overwhelming you with enemies rather than introducing any skill-based ones to overcome, and by limiting my ammo supply. Maybe it’s because I attempt to kill every enemy, but I consistently ran out of ammo and had to run away to find more. I can still ram into ships to damage them, but this is a half-baked mechanic that ends up being a bad idea most of the time.
There is some awful random frame hitching that plagues the Xbox One version of the game. Every twenty to thirty seconds the game freezes up for a half second. This caused me to miss shots and to end up running into hostile fire. I don’t know if this is an issue in other versions of the game, but it persisted even after restarts – regardless of what was happening on screen. It wasn’t enough to ruin my experience, but these hitches definitely affected my enjoyment of it.
The levels are procedurally generated, and more often than not I found myself having trouble remembering where I have been due to how similar all the rooms look. A wider color palette or some more varied textures would have prevented having to look at the map so much. That being said, the art style is great. Voxel graphics lend an appealing sci-fi sheen that reminds me of an 80’s sci-fi movie. The sound and music are top-notch as well. An upbeat synth-centric soundtrack accentuates the journey and the sound design is smartly implemented to show me where enemies fire is coming from – an important detail as they could be on any side of me due to the 6-DOF movement.
Weaponry comes in the form of six classes. You obtain it through enemy drops, chests, or by crafting them. This loot dynamic seems strong at first, but as Sublevel Zero progresses, its more shallow elements start to show themselves.
Weapon classes vary from plasma shots to dumb fire missiles to a standard machine gun. Four can be equipped at once, and they provide a solid arsenal early on, but a glaring lack of progression ruins any desire to go searching for upgrades. Most drops consist of the same gun you are already using but with a small change such as a homing attribute or faster fire rate. When the majority of my pickups end up being trash compared to my already low-level equipment, I tend to stop getting excited about more loot.
Loot also extends to different ship hulls and engines, and with them come some more significant changes such as extended ammo capacity or ship speed. These parts can be swapped on the fly, and I actively searched these out and debated what to choose based on my current weapon sets. If I have weak weapons, I am more likely to choose a faster hull so I can zoom away when losing a fight.
Those crappy weapons do serve some purpose. I used them to craft my way to stronger weapons rather than relying on RNG. Crafting consists of combining two types of weapon/ship/hull and ending up with one that shares attributes of both. Merging a high rate-of-fire energy weapon with a slow-yet-accurate machine gun spits out a super-fast machine gun with below average accuracy. That’s about as complex as it gets, but I had some fun testing out the different recipes.
Aside from unlocking different starting hulls, there wasn’t much to draw me back to Sublevel Zero Redux. The story I mentioned? It never amounts to much. There are no badass crafting recipes to search out. No stand-out rooms to find. No secret bosses to overcome. What is here works fine. Movement and combat are fine-tuned and the levels are pretty (albeit all too similar). All the parts that make up a decent roguelike are here, but it’s a shame that it never amounts to anything more.
This review is based on a digital copy of Sublevel Zero Redux for the Xbox One, provided by Sigtrap Games.