A Chilling Dive into the Depths of Subnautica: Below Zero
The gameplay loop was strong and sucked you in right from the start. Lush, beautiful environments, a brilliantly composed soundtrack that effortlessly blends into each other as your traverse this massive and deeply complex ecosystem.
A few years ago, I got the chance to play Subnautica, it was recommended by one of my friends. I started to play an early access version, but I quickly fell in love with the game. Once I realized I was going to love this game, I put it down only to pick it up later when the full game was released. Subnautica was an experience I cannot begin to describe, though I tried in my video essay, “How Subnautica Immerses You with its Compelling Narrative and Gorgeous World Building”.
The game pulled me like an undertow at the bottom of the sea floor. It gave me an interesting story, with a large and open map to explore. Every nook and cranny offered something as you delved deeper and deeper into the ecological expanse – where every little thing contributed to overall lore of the planet. I spent so much time just watching the waves go, quickly dipping under the surface of the water just to get a peek at the lush, flourishing fauna and flora of 4546B. There is a lot of things I can still say. Subnautica is easily one of the best games I’ve ever played, it brought so many concepts to the table, and when paired together they made for unusual and worthwhile experience.
Now you know why I had to review Subnautica: Below Zero. In fact, this is less than a review, and more of an assessment from someone who spent more time playing this – now franchise – that they’d realized.
The story of Subnautica: Below Zero starts after the full release of Subnautica in 2018. Subnautica’s success propelled developer Unknown Worlds into the limelight and with that Unknown Worlds began thinking about their next move. Originally, they intended Below Zero to be DLC (Downloadable Content), much more like an expansion to the base game. According to the developers, Below Zero quickly became its own stand-alone game during development. In August 2018, it was announced that Subnautica: Below Zero would be coming as a standalone release. Below Zero was then released into early access in January 2019. It would eventually be released on May 14, 2021 – more than two years after its release into early access.
During this time, I opted not play Below Zero in any capacity. I avoided news, updates, YouTube videos, Twitter – everything.
I began writing this piece before I completed the game. I visited Wikipedia just to confirm a date, and I spoiled the ending of the game. I am not happy.
Either way, I did not play the early access, and I waited patiently for the press release which would indicate a full and final release. I jumped into the game as soon as I could.
Chapter I – We do we like crashing on this planet?
A quick overview of the main storyline.
The game, once again, opens with your protagonist crash landing onto the surface of 4546B. It is here we learn about our protagonist for the game Robin Ayou. She, like our game’s previous protagonist loves crashing into the water. She makes the daring decision to leave behind her life to investigate what happened to her sister, Samantha, after Alterra, the company she worked for, claimed her death was due to ‘employee negligence’. Alterra’s withdrawal from the planet left a bad taste for Robin, and she was convinced Alterra was up to something.
Robin receives an SOS signal a short time after landing on the planet. She sets out to track the SOS signal where she eventually uncovers an alien sanctuary. It is here that we meet an alien in digital form, who goes by the name AL-AN. AL-AN downloads itself into Robin’s mind, and Robin, understandably angered at this, agrees to help build AL-AN’s body so they can leave hers. She scours the planet for resources and the locations of AL-AN’s body parts.
The pair eventually comes to understand each other, and as the story unfolds, they both gain a new respect for each other as the more intricate parts of the story play out.
Robin, in between searching for the alien sanctuaries, also searches the bases Alterra left behind. Hoping to find clues that will lead her to the truth of her sister’s time on the planet. While searching the Alterra bases, she comes across Marguerit Maida who is another survivor trapped on the planet. Marguerit is initially hostile towards Robin, but eventually warms up to her when Robin proves herself to be genuine.
She discovers that her sister had uncovered a frozen still alive leviathan who was infected with the Khaara virus. Samantha attempts to cure Khaara, but Alterra had other ideas for the bacteria, among other things – bio-weapons. Samantha decided to sabotage the location where the frozen leviathan lay to prevent Alterra from succeeding in their plans, while Marguerit destroyed the lab which held the Khaara samples. Robin then cures the Khaara bacteria in the leviathan to prevent Alterra from conducting any additional research.
Robin was eventually able to collect all the resources needed for AL-AN’s body and she fabricates it. It is at this point AL-AN returns to their body, and we learn the secrets of the planet. AL-AN was the lead scientist researching a cure for the Khaara bacteria. AL-AN, like most scientists, went against orders and attempted to incubate Sea Dragon eggs which AL-AN believed was necessary for the cure. However, we learn that Sea Dragon parents were much too great for their lab to withstand – thus leading to the outbreak of Khaara on the planet.
We then go through a satisfying final moment as AL-AN shares some of its power with the player to help prepare a phase gate so that AL-AN and Robin can travel to AL-AN’s world to see for their selves what happened to their civilization, as well as to atone for whatever may come.
The game ends with both Robin and AL-AN arriving at AL-AN’s home world.
Chapter II – Learning to live together
I have some notes
The game’s story carries itself much like the previous Subnautica did. The main plot is told through an alien being directly speaking to you, while you infer everything else from the PDA that houses all your research data. Scanning beings, buildings, and the like – you are given a lore piece which helps flesh out the world. There are times when you find PDAs of other employees of Alterra, which can help you piece together what was going on. It remains an interesting way to expand on the characters, in an indirect manner.
Below Zero takes their story beats up a notch. This was also one of the explicit requirements the development team indicated to the public. Below Zero was going to be more narrative driven than the previous entry. They were right – there is a lot more conversations that happen in real time, and not on the PDA. Between Marguerit Maida and AL-AN, there is a lot to listen to, and the performances were quite engaging.
I did quite enjoy the interactions between AL-AN and Robin, even if it did veer into the common trope that Human emotion is better than whatever else is out there. There are times throughout the story that AL-AN would not understand why Robin was feeling a certain way, and she would then explain it to them, like they are five. I don’t know if this is growth or if it’s an oversight, but in the final conversations with AL-AN nearing the end of the game, it is made clear that other members of AL-AN’s race also could exhibit these traits, this is indicated by their belief that they would be imprisoned and shamed for their desire to find a cure at any cost. AL-AN also exhibits shame and guilt for their actions on the planet. So, I do find it strange that AL-AN had issues with Robin, and by extension – human, individual feelings and interactions.
The way the conversations were presented to me, with the ability to dismiss anything AL-AN has to say, was an unusual choice, but a choice, nevertheless. I did enjoy hearing both Robin and AL-AN banter, express interest, and make the decision to learn about each other during their time. It was these conversations that made it believable that AL-AN would ask for Robin to journey with them back to their home world.
Marguerit Maida was mentioned in the previous game, and its great to see her here. The quest which took us to Marguerit after initially finding her was a tad bit frustrating but seeing her held up underwater with her snow bear and fending off any Alterra advances to protect herself and Samantha’s dying wish was great. We last interact with her on her green house high atop a snow-covered landmass. Personally, it was harrowing, hearing her thank you, and just watching the building which is one of the reasons why she is alive and the uneasy knowledge that she is going to live the rest of her life on this planet. The closure of this quest is one where I just took a few moments and let it stay with me for a bit.
Chapter III – The Good, The Bad, and what needs to be drowned.
The snowfox. The Snowfox needs to be drowned.
I cannot express how frustrating the snowfox was, is, and will be. Easily the worst part about this game was the quest to cure the Khaara bacterium from the frozen leviathan. Allow me, to just vent about this quest.
I hate this side quest. It made be break my will to not use the console. It was so convoluted and difficult. Worse yet, it is not even required to complete the main game. Which means I could have avoided it completely and not broken my rule. True I was weak. The above ground sections were easily the worse part about the game. Several times during my playthrough above ground, I simply ALT-F4’d the game.
There was a difficult spike for no reason. The fauna chases you indefinitely if you do not use the boost feature, and if you happen to come across the leviathan who pokes you from the ice, if you are even remotely close, you will get thrown off your snowfox, and it is a race to either get back on or run away while both you and your snowfox incurs damages. The only thing needed was the snow fox to get the Architect’s tissue. Or you could have just walked through the basin. Either way, I dislike everything about it.
I started this quest at Hour 14. It took two hours in game, and countless hours when I ALT-F4’d.
You are required to use a Spy Pengling, to explore little caches across the basin to get the Kharaa Antidote. I counted about 4. I want to say, I refused to do this quest. This entire quest, which was the reason why our protagonist even arrived on the planet was such a drag. I enjoyed learning about our protagonist’s sister and seeing her cure the leviathan and hearing AL-AN and our protagonist speak about getting closure was the closure I needed to dive back into the water and drown. Sigh.
After completing this quest, using the console, running around on the frozen basin, getting eaten alive by the snow bears and a giant leviathan, it was an exhausting trek, and I ultimately decided to put Below Zero down for a few hours while I prepared to complete the rest of the game.
It was still a nice way to close off Sam’s story and give closure to protagonist and player having spent the entire game looking for any scrap of Sam we could find. It was a well written and felt like a genuine conclusion.
The seatruck was already drowned, but I would like to express a few things.
The seatruck was only marginally better than the Cyclops which preceded it in the originally Subnautica. I do enjoy being able to get the seatruck much earlier than I could’ve the Cyclops. They basically merged the sea moth and the Cyclops into this seatruck. The seatruck functions on the premise of modules, where you build new modules which extend the functionality of the truck as well as make deep treks into the depths of the world. There is just one small problem.
The seatruck can almost never fit through the cracks and crevices you are required to navigate to get to the much later locations such as the Crystal Caves. I know you can just undock your main seatruck module and continue on like that, or use the prawn suit at later stages of the game, but I always felt like there were many places where you couldn’t carry your vehicles. And to make matters worse, they are often so far away from where you are forced to undock from your vehicles that you are likely to drown.
The developers know this, because there are always sources of oxygen deep below – every other ‘room’ would have an oxygen source. There were so many times where I would just be rushing from place to place, only to scurry back to my vehicle for safety and oxygen, but I couldn’t carry the vehicle there because the entrance I found was smaller than the vehicle would allow. I once got stuck in hot lava geyser and I was unable to extract myself, and I ended up having to restart multiple times before I eventually got out.
The seatruck, until you get maxed out, starts out great, but as you add more modules, it becomes slow and sluggish, and I get the feeling it is intended as a mobile base rather than an exploration device. The seatruck has several modules and you can stack them. There are fabricator modules, a teleportation module, storage modules, an aquarium module, and a prawn suit dock. Each with their own health bars, and each frustrating to lock back into the main sea truck module once you have undocked.
Onto the good.
They expanded the base building, and made cosmetic items feel good to use. I enjoyed decorating my underwater base. I can see they just extended and expanding on the system that they had previously and it honestly worked. I did not really make much in the way of a base, just what was needed. I did take a half of that new long room module and make a small space with artwork and the like.
The ability to pin recipes to the top right of the screen made it easier for me to always track what I am building so I do not have to keep checking when I am running from one end of my base to the other to get resources. It also made it easy to track what I went out into the depths for.
The game also has a very clean highlight system, where interactive objects are highlighted even in the dark, so you always know if there is something around. It probably was in the original game, I just never bothered to check the settings menu.
Chapter IV: The Final Moments
This Bears Repeating.
I just want to take a moment to go over one of the best moments in the game. The final sequence in the game.
The final moments of the game were interesting to say the least. We learned about AL-AN's failure and the subsequent release of the Khaara bacteria on the planet. Their guilt and remorse on full display. Their explanation also ties into the previous game. Where it is discovered that AL-AN was the one who captured the Sea Dragon eggs to create the antidote. Leading into the events of the first game.
We finally get to see AL-AN in all their glory in their new body. A fantastically crafted entity that certainly makes an impact as AL-AN is viewed. AL-AN gives you the option to complete any hanging issues you have on the planet before going through the phase gate with them.
Once you have determined you are ready to move on, you go with AL-AN to a phase gate, where AL-AN gives you some of their arms to help realign the grid. Upon doing so you and AL-AN goes through the phase gate and enters space where you are almost hit by an asteroid, and you eventually make it to the AL-AN’s home planet. The game fades to white as AL-AN declare their decisions to meet whatever may come with you by their side.
A fitting end for the player who has no family, and AL-AN whose people may reject him for his failure.
Chapter V: Conclusion
Another One! Please. – if you’re willing that is.
I played the original Subnautica. I loved it. I spent about twenty-four hours inside Below Zero. I will admit the game began to drag, the entire quest with the cure for Khaara did not help.
Once you have played about sixteen hours, you have seen almost all the gameplay loop there is. What’s left is just upgrading and completing the story. The story is worth your time, the performances were believable and immersive.
The gameplay loop was strong and sucked you in right from the start. Lush, beautiful environments, a brilliantly composed soundtrack that effortlessly blends into each other as your traverse this massive and deeply complex ecosystem. It guides you across a journey of discovery for both you and the alien being as you both learn to live with another.
Unknown Worlds did a fantastic job. I thoroughly enjoyed this expansion, and I am excited for what is to come.