Remember that game you loved to play as a kid? Come on, you know the one. That game you had on your parent’s PC, you’d get up early just to squeeze a few minutes in before school. There was that one boss you just couldn’t get past, until you finally did and it was awesome! It was one of your first games; you can’t quite remember the name, but it laid the foundation of your love affair with video games forever. Well I’m here to tell you, Sublevel Zero Redux IS that game.
Dubbed the spiritual successor to the 1996 title; Descent (for all you 90’s kids out there), Sublevel Zero Redux is the first six-degrees-of-freedom shooter to hit consoles in well over a decade. What does that even mean? Sublevel Zero Redux sees you pilot a lone scavenger craft as you explore the labyrinth of an abandoned research facility. Flying in zero-gravity with 360 degrees of movement gives you absolute freedom to fly, strafe, turn, hover and dive through every tunnel and crevice as you fight off enemy craft on all sides. Just be careful not to get yourself all turned around, as you’ll soon be asking yourself which way is up.
Narratively speaking this game is fairly simple; humanity has been scattered across a universe that is being torn apart at the seams due to some mysterious and unexplained force. As one of the many craft dispatched by a council of elders to explore space and discover the source of this phenomenon, you come upon an abandoned research facility and are suddenly pulled into a singularity. Your only hope for survival is to fly into the facility in search of components to a Flux Drive that you can use to get back home and report your findings. Okay, so maybe it’s not so simple, but simply delivered at least. Once you’re done reading the wall of text at the beginning of the game, the continuity of the narrative can be somewhat forgotten.
This game is ultra-retro with a modern feel. It’s so retro in fact that it’s hard to compare it to any current games out there. However, if you were ever a fan of games like Star fox, Wipeout, Doom, or of course Descent, you’ll love the intense nostalgia that Sublevel Zero Redux fills you with. It handles better than anything out of the 90’s; flight is smooth and responsive and the simple control mapping is so intuitive that you could probably skip the tutorial level (but why would you, right?). This game is surprisingly and refreshingly tough as well, just like that game you remember from way back when. Any wrong turn can have you surrounded by enemy ships and before you know it you’re staring at that Game Over screen again, it adds a whole new level of danger to your exploration and inventory management. I’m ashamed to admit that I had to crank it down to Easy just to get past Sublevel 2!
Just like the old days, in this game; dead means dead. There’s no checkpoints and no mid-level saves, it’s permadeath and back to Sublevel 0 to try and try again. This makes every skirmish more tense than the last, and forces you to really care for your ship and ration those Repair Kits. It can also get very annoying to go back to the beginning every time. Luckily the exploration never gets boring thanks to the procedurally generated environments, from lava-laden stone caverns to a maze of neon-lit corridors. The enemy types are diverse and many; exploding kamikaze pods, rapid-firing rapid-flying ships, powerful sentry turrets and much more, all constantly posing a very real threat. The asset design and art style of faux 8-bit pixelation is another beautiful throwback that fits perfectly with the overall tone. No two levels appear the same as you fly towards the centre; where you’ll face down a battalion of sentries and a self-defending Flux Core in a confined chamber that’ll push your piloting skills to the absolute limit.
The sound design is another prominent feature of this game. The score is a great mix of electronica, sometimes orchestral and polyphonic themes reminiscent of the days of the MSX and early Nintendo, while the sounds of plasma weapons and missiles flying by are fittingly simplistic (in other words: pew pew!).
The veritable arsenal of customisable features for your ship are what gives this game its modern taste; alternating between weapons that include lasers, flamethrowers, shotguns and autocannons that accompany seeking missiles, dumbfire and grenade launchers. This allows you to hold your own against the vast numbers of the enemy without feeling overpowered at any point. The introduction of a simple crafting system means that no unused weapon, hull or engine upgrade goes to waste with a vast selection of unique combinations available. Each enemy destroyed also rewards you with extra ammo and the super sci-fi currency known as Nanites and Nanocarts (suspiciously similar in appearance to the game cartridges of a certain old console…).
Despite the constantly refreshed environments of the level design, this game does suffer with being somewhat repetitive. At any time the objective of the level is; explore, find the core, grab the component and move on. There aren’t enough dynamic boss fights to speak of beyond blindly firing at the core before it decimates your health. The addition of boss level ship-to-ship fights would have worked perfectly, somewhat of an oversight. However, once again that simplicity is intrinsically linked to this type of game. As with most pre-millennium titles, there’s a clearer focus on survival in a gauntlet over narrative and character development. Later levels evolve exploration with the addition of colour-coded keys and doors, echoing games like the original Doom. A nice touch, you’ll absolutely need your map for this one. This can all be a double-edged sword as there can be a lot going on, sometimes too much going on; the game consistently crashes on console by the 3rd core battle simply due to the amount of activity on-screen. The only way I surpassed this was to turn down the difficulty and destroy the core before enemy craft could spawn. This isn’t ideal of course, but with any title comes its bugs, it’s something that can be fixed with updates and no doubt will be.
Sublevel Zero Redux definitely has replay value; as mentioned, with its procedurally generated levels and variety of weaponry, there’s plenty to be seen. Along with a selection of different base craft to unlock by achievements in-game. However, the ending of the story also encourages replay with the addition of extra levels and the promise of something more mysterious to be discovered beneath the surface. If nothing else, you’ll go back just for the fun of blowing something up in a convincingly sci-fi setting.
So, the verdict? This title really reaches back to the popular and seemingly forgotten model of games that we all grew up on. It’s equal parts retro and current-gen in a mixture that satisfies your nostalgic urges while also being a joy to handle. Those accustomed to the predominantly story-driven nature of current gaming may be left wanting, but if you’re searching for an incredibly fun and concise title that offers a challenge in a simple package; Sublevel Zero Redux is the game you remember so fondly from yesteryear. There are rumours circulating of a VR compatible version coming to PSVR as well; perfect for this title, if you can handle the movement.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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