This review will contain potential spoilers for both Subnautica and Subnautica: Below Zero. I urge you to play either game with as few spoilers as possible. I have played the game to completion on Survival mode.
The original Subnautica was my first foray into reviewing computer games and also one of the few narrative pieces that I have written for the site. It was a game of fear, exploration, and a genuine struggle for survival in an alien planet’s ocean where lots of creatures though you looked like lunch.
Now we are back on planet 4546b, but not in the same place. Landing in a polar region, our protagonist Robyn, you know your name this time round, is trying to find out what happened to her sister Sam. Sam was a research scientist for the Altera corporation, a typical sci-fi shadowy corporation that was looking into the alien structures found on this planet during the period of the first game.
This time round our protagonist is not silent, and is actually quite chatty. She has her own story to tell and plot to pursue. This means you cannot really project your own hopes and fears onto her character leaving you following a plot as opposed to making up your own.
The world this time feels less lonely. You have an aim from the off, you’ll hear other voices talk to you. The cast of characters is nice and diverse. You heard some signals in the last game, but you get a lot more voice acting this time round, and its pretty good for the most part.
The downside of feeling less lonely is that the world feels less scary. Now fear is very subjective of course, so I can only talk to my own perception. I found the first game absolutely terrifying. It had a wonderful mix between pushing you into the scary deep places of the world, but rewarding you with beautiful new things to look at.
The beauty is still there for sure, and each biome feels more jam packed with flora, fauna, and magnificent geography. The fear is gone though. Sure there were moments I felt threat, and times of trepidation, but that fear of hovering over a blank void you knew you had to descend into were just not present.
The world does feel more alive. The fauna that are part of the world have their own personalities and some of them will even interact with you. There has been a lot more charm injected into the game, something that wasn’t present in the first and contributes to the ocean feeling more friendly this time round.
Below Zero increases the generosity which was a feature of the first game. Since Robyn has chosen to be on the planet, she comes armed with a bunch of base building prototypes. Among these is a plan for a beacon, something it took a while to get, if ever, in the original. This makes for much easier navigation, allowing you to leave notes all over the ocean to keep you ship shape and Bristol fashion.
There are still new things to find of course, and they’ve expanded the base building options quite a bit and introduced some new transportation options. The tunnels and crevices of the world hide all sorts of goodies to find and I would pay attention to the numerous audio logs you find as they hold valuable clues to where treasure might be found.
One of the folk on our Discord asked whether they should play Below Zero or the original if they were to only play one, and I’m honestly a bit conflicted. Whilst ostensibly the same game, they feel very different.
If you want a real feeling of survival against a hostile and terrifying world, I would go for the original. If you would prefer a more story driven game the feels a bit more populated and friendly, then Below Zero is what you want. It’s also worth noting that Below Zero is a more stable product, with less bugs and issues than I encountered in the first.
As for myself, I’m less conflicted. I really loved the original Subnautica, and I was compelled to play it whenever I could. I enjoyed Below Zero well enough, and if you play it without playing the original, it may even be as amazing and terrifying as I found the first.
It didn’t do that for me, and although it is a solid follow up, it lacks ambition. I wanted to see bigger creatures, wondrous biomes, and vast, dark oceans to explore. I wanted that sense of truly being abandoned in a mysterious, beautiful, and terrifying place. Instead I got a game that felt afraid to venture out of the shallows and embrace what made the first game truly magical: that mix of fear and wonder that made it a truly unique experience. It’s more compact, more full of life, but feels like it has lost its soul along the way. I wanted to love it, to embrace it, to put that wetsuit back on and descend into the depths once more but they just didn’t go deep enough.