2017’s Subnautica was a special game. Combining survival gameplay with the allure of exploring a beautiful and seemingly endless ocean, it delivered one of the most unique and immersive experiences of its kind. Its sequel, Subnautica: Below Zero, attempts something similar, while attempting to go bigger and better (as most sequels do), and once again, Unknown Worlds display a knack for crafting an experience with engaging exploration set in a mysterious, beautiful, and haunting world.
Subnautica: Below Zero sees you playing as Robin, who arrives on planet 4546B, in search of answers about her sister’s death. Officially, Sam, your sister, died through her own fault while studying and researching the environments of the planet, but Robin feels strongly for more than a few reasons that the truth is something else, setting her off on a journey of uncovering mysteries great and small. Below Zero puts a much greater emphasis on storytelling than its predecessor did, and for the most part, the story does its job really well. It might not be the biggest draw of the game, but it will definitely keep you interesting in making progress to see what happens next.
"It’s an immediately compelling loop. It works on a very basic level right from the get go, and it only grows in complexity as you progress further, as you’re able to unlock new and better crafting recipes to allow you to cobble up an increasingly more complex and impressive home base."
The biggest draw in Below Zero, of course, is exploration and crafting, just as it was in its predecessor. After crash-landing on the planet, you’ll head to your underwater base – just a single, cramped room in the beginning with a storage locker and a fabricator – and head out into the depths to learn more about your environment and to grow your arsenal of tools and equipment. The core gameplay loop here will be familiar to anyone who’s played Subnautica. You cook the fish you get your hands on to maintain your health and thirst, you explore and mine minerals and chop up plants, among other things, to gain access to new materials and crafting components.
The more of these you find, the more crafting recipes you unlock, and the more crafting recipes you unlock, the better equipped you become to head out farther and deeper from your home base. Craft a flipper and a high capacity oxygen tank for yourself in the opening hours, for instance, and you’ll be able to dive much deeper on account of having a faster swimming speed and more oxygen to breath. That, in turn, will enable you to head to new, deeper areas and find more new and possibly rare materials to collect, bring back to your base, and craft even more useful equipment. It’s an immediately compelling loop. It works on a very basic level right from the get go, and it only grows in complexity as you progress further, as you’re able to unlock new and better crafting recipes to allow you to cobble up an increasingly more complex and impressive home base. Exploration and progression go hand-in-hand in Below Zero, just as they did in its predecessor, and the two work very well together.
And exploring has its own innate rewards. Finding new materials that will help you craft better gear always feels rewarding, of course, but for me, the biggest draw of exploration was to witness beautiful alien locations. Unknown Worlds Entertainment don’t need to prove themselves when it comes to crafting beautiful and awe-inspiring locations to explore, so Subnautica: Below Zero’s strengths in this area aren’t really surprising. But it is gratifying to see the sequel excel just as much here as its predecessor did, with gorgeous areas exhibiting hypnotic beauty and sporting surprising variety across the entire game. Uncovering new life forms, whether its small fish or quirky creatures like the mischievous Sea Monkeys or the larger, more dangerous aquatic creatures that will set your heart racing is also always a delight.
"It is gratifying to see the sequel excel just as much here as its predecessor did, with gorgeous areas exhibiting hypnotic beauty and sporting surprising variety across the entire game."
If there’s one issue I have with the exploration, it’s that sometimes, it’s a bit too easy to get lost, even with navigation tools equipped. You can place a beacon (if you have one in your inventory) to make getting back to that location easier later on, but it’s a bit frustrating that the game doesn’t have a mapping feature, which would cut out so much of the aimless and repetitive parts of exploration as you tried to get back to an area you had been to before but couldn’t find it. Meanwhile, some of Below Zero’s survival mechanics also feel like unwanted elements at times. Your hunger and thirst meters aren’t too demanding of your attention, but you do still have to keep an eye on them, and at times it feels like they get in the way of exploration, which, honestly, is the best part of the game. Thankfully, the game does give you the option of playing without the hunger and thirst meters at the outset, so there is that.
Subnautica: Below Zero also expands on its predecessor by having proper land exploration, where the primary and most constant threat you face is the frigid temperatures of the environments you find yourself in. While managing your oxygen is your chief concern when you’re exploring underwater locations, on the ground, you have to make sure to keep yourself warm, by finding hotspots, taking shelter in caves and indoor environments, and more. Land exploration isn’t nearly as elaborate as underwater exploration is, and the environments that you find yourself in, though well designed and beautiful in their own way, aren’t nearly as interesting as the depths of the sea that you explore. Still, the vast bulk of Below Zero is set underwater, and for what it is, land exploration functions well enough- even if most of the time you’ll be thinking about getting back underwater (and in turn, back to the game’s best parts) as soon as possible.
On a technical level, Below Zero has a few issues. Pop in and stuttering frame rate can be occasional problems, while booting up the game or reloading your saves also takes you into long load times (which was surprising, since I played on an Xbox Series X). None of these are major issues though, and in the audio-visual areas, the game deserves a ton of credit. Below Zero’s beauty is propped up by wonderful art design, while audio design is also top notch, from the ambient sounds of the ocean to the distant cries of alien aquatic creatures.
"In the audio-visual areas, the game deserves a ton of credit. Below Zero’s beauty is propped up by wonderful art design, while audio design is also top notch, from the ambient sounds of the ocean to the distant cries of alien aquatic creatures. "
Subnautica: Below Zero is a great game, one that builds on the solid foundations of its predecessor in smart and interesting ways. Expanded ideas and quality of life improvements make crafting and exploration as engaging as you’d want, and the beautiful underwater world you find yourself in is an absolute joy to explore and exist in. Some minor issues can get in the way of the game’s best parts at times, but in the grand scheme of things, these feel like blips in an otherwise memorable underwater journey.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox Series X.
Beautiful and diverse locations are always a joy to explore; Exploration and progression are tied together in smart and rewarding ways; Engaging story; Excellent audio design.
Land exploration is not as engaging as underwater exploration; No mapping feature; Some technical issues.