By Will Uhl
Sublevel Zero is the lovechild of two niche genres: Roguelikes, known for their difficulty and randomly generated content, and six-degrees-of-freedom shooters, in which players can move freely without gravity. It’s a previously-unseen combination that works surprisingly well, bringing out some of the best aspects of each genre. Though it may have a narrow audience, Sublevel Zero focuses on delivering a single, refined experience.
While Sublevel Zero isn’t as brutally punishing as Hotline Miami or Super Meat Boy, the combination of zero-G shootouts and permanent death means more casual players will need to push themselves to get far. A simple but functional tutorial is about the only charity beginners can expect; there’s no easy mode, save checkpoints or cheat codes. Though a successful run from start to finish can take just a couple hours, getting to that point can take much longer.
Though navigating the serpentine rooms and caverns can be disorienting, the biggest challenge is avoiding damage. Learning to juke the drills, rockets, and everything “pew pew” that Sublevel Zero’s rogue robots attack you with is difficult and rewarding. Everything is appropriately telegraphed — the only excuse for taking a laser to the face is not paying attention. Because of the plethora of projectiles and freedom of movement, masterfully dodging feels nothing short of elegant.
As the first product of the tiny indie studio Sigtrap, there is more of a focus on quality rather than quantity. There is nothing beyond the six-level challenge — no endless mode, no leaderboards, no multiplayer. It could have expanded upon the selection of weapons, parts and unlockable ships. Even so, it doesn’t feel lacking. Sublevel Zero isn’t a smorgasbord, or a three-course meal. It’s a sandwich, and if you don’t like how it tastes, you don’t have much else to try. Thankfully, it’s pretty tasty.
That’s not to say the game doesn’t have any flaws. It’s mildly buggy, which is rarely more than a brief aesthetic issue. All enemies make a noise when they see you, many of which are difficult to distinguish. And the randomly-ordered chunks of story in the levels are less “intriguingly mysterious” and more “tiringly vague.” However, Sigtrap is still sending updates to tweak and fix things, so these (admittedly minor) issues will hopefully be phased out.
All said, it’s probably the best 6DOF shooter in decades, which is just as much a testament to the PC-only genre’s obscurity as it is to the game’s quality. It works especially well because it tries to take what’s been done and make something new instead of recreating what’s been done before. From the reactive soundtrack, to the beautiful low-poly aesthetic, to the careful weapon balance, Sublevel Zero delivers a narrow but highly polished experience.