Subnautica: Below Zero is Unknown Worlds’ follow-up to the runaway hit that was Subnautica back at the start of 2018. It provides challenges and gameplay that aren’t for everyone, but fans of the original will certainly embrace it. Coming out for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, Nintendo Switch and PCs, gamers everywhere can now enjoy the game that’s been out in Early Access for over two years on Steam. Our playtest was done on a PS5 and PS4 – both versions are bundled together when you purchase the game.
For PlayStation owners, the timing of Below Zero’s release couldn’t have been much better. The original game was very recently given away for free by Sony as part of their #playathome campaign for 2021, sparking renewed interested in the 2018 indie classic that became an instant benchmark for open world survival games. And although you can also venture out on land in Below Zero, the new Subnautica stays true to its origins (and name) by making sure you spend plenty of time under water.
Set roughly two years after the events of the original game, you set off towards the icy Planet 4546B. This adds an extra survival element to the gameplay, because in addition to your need for nutrition you’ll also have to stay warm amidst the chilly environments. This is especially true while on land, which makes the environment during those little trips feel hostile – though the alternative under water isn’t exactly safe either.
The core gameplay mechanics revolve around scavenging your surroundings for resources, which ties into your ability to progress through the narrative – ultimately the payoff that’s sorely missing from a lot of straight up survival games that don’t manage to keep me hooked for long. Subnautica is literally a different kind of story, with excellent narrative delivery thanks to spot-on writing and a stellar delivery through strong voice acting.
The structure of a game like Subnautica: Below Zero is too open-ended to call this a narrative-driven adventure though, as objectives aren’t always laid out clearly and exploration and experimentation are part of the game just as much as the story is, and if you’re not careful you’re going to feel quite lost at times. That won’t make it a game for everyone, but it’s also part of the charm – stumbling upon something unexpected that you might not see in another playthrough or that might be totally different from what your friends experienced while playing.
Many of the most memorable encounters are going to be with massive enemies that you can’t even begin to fight, so hiding and running are often your best options unless you’ve progressed your character far enough to try and do battle. The game’s a constant challenge, but in the mix between growth, exploration and story progression Subnautica: Below Zero strikes a chord with players in a way that makes them want to push on despite the odds. Of course, what helps is that the game world of Planet 4546B is a gorgeous one to look at as well. If you didn’t enjoy the first game this won’t sway you, but if you enjoyed Subnautica when it came out or during the recent #playathome campaign, you won’t want to miss out on the sequel.