STAFF REVIEW of Sublevel Zero Redux (Xbox One)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017.
by Adam Dileva

Sublevel Zero Redux Box art I can’t believe I was a teenager when Descent first released back in 1995. I remember it vividly because as far as I can remember, I believe that was the first six degrees of freedom (6DoF) game I ever played that looked and played as advanced as it did for its time. While I’m unsure that Descent was the game that really invented the 6DoF control scheme, it certainly was one of the first to make it popular, as it spawned numerous clones and similar types of games with its unique mechanics.

Sadly, over the years not many games aside from space and flight sims really use this control scheme often anymore, and for valid reasons, but apparently developer Sigtrap games didn’t get the memo, as they’ve brought Sublevel Zero Redux to Xbox One. Older gamers who grew up with these types of games will no doubt experience some flashbacks to their youth, especially Descent and Forsaken fans, but can this Redux bring back a long lost genre to its former glory?

You’re a lone pilot searching for answers to a cataclysmic event, and your only hope is to pilot a small ship and search mysterious places for answers. So while yes, there is technically a story, it’s not really worth noting as it’s paper thin, but not all is gloom & doom, as Sublevel Zero Redux’s strengths are actually within its gameplay and mechanics. While it would have been interesting to have a ‘real’ reason to care about why you’re doing, the lack of any true story won’t hinder your gameplay experience in any tangible way, as you’ll be solely focusing on surviving and piloting to worry about much else.

So let’s start off with the control scheme. It’s technically labeled as a “six degrees of freedom” structure, as you can move your ship up/down, left/right, forward/backwards, but also have the ability to move along the other axis’, yaw and roll, hence all six directions (6DoF). Essentially you are also able to barrel roll or front/back flip your ship along with the standard movements in other games. The controls do take some serious getting used to, as Left Stick moves the ship, Right Stick is your aim, and the D-Pad is used for rolling and height. Factor in sections where it auto rotates you, or leans you in specific ways without your input, and you can get lost real quickly.

Even after more than a few of hours of replaying Redux, I still often found myself fumbling with the controls in the heat of chaotic battles. I understand that 6DoF controls are nothing new, but if you’re not into the few genres that utilize them often, you’re going to have a very steep learning curve ahead of you to become proficient in your piloting abilities, even more so if you plan on using the boosters to travel faster.

That being said, when you do start to get the hang of the unique controls, and start to perform all the moments you’re intending to without thinking, Redux can feel great at times, especially during boss battles when you dodge incoming fire masterfully. As long as you take time to learn the controls it does become easier in time without having to focus too much on which direction to rotate, I promise.

An interesting choice that Sublevel Zero Redux implements is many rogue-like mechanics, meaning you better get used to permanent death. While I don’t normally gravitate towards games like that, when done right they can bring a lot of enjoyment and tenseness to the gameplay. If you manage to be a master at these types of games, a single playthrough can easily only last 2 or 3 hours, but for the rest of us, prepare to have to restart from the beginning many times over.

Luckily the levels and maps are procedurally generated, so every playthrough will be unique, though you’ll eventually start to notice reused rooms after a handful of attempts to reach the end. The levels are crafted by connected rooms. Sometimes a room will have multiple exits and tunnels, or just a single one, it will vary room to room and on each playthrough. Luckily there’s a handy 3D map that can be viewed at any time, as you’ll no doubt become lost and turned around often until you get the hang of the 6DoF controls. Eventually you’ll need to find colored key cards to pass specific doors, usually the path to the stage’s boss, your only exit to the next level. One lesson I learned the hard way is that your game doesn’t pause when you’re in the menus or map, so make sure you’re in a safe spot before doing so.

You’ll need to collect a specific amount of currency to do said upgrades and crafting, which is what most enemies will drop, along with ammo replenishments and the sought after health packs. Crafting upgrades is gradual, as you can’t simply create the best weapons right away, but there’s no real guide on how to create specific weapons or the branching paths of combinations. With a very limited inventory as well, you may not even see many crafting options, as you’ll most likely have to drop many items on your journey.

If you’re a completionist, you’ll have your work cut out for you as there’s logs to find hidden within the levels, new ships to unlock, and tons of challenges. To be honest though, if you’re not that into grinding for new ships, achievements, or unlocking every bonus, the replayability may be a little light for you value wise.

Enemies that are alerted to your presence will start to chase you, firing in your direction. The early enemies aren’t much of a big deal, but in the later stages survival is going to be a great challenge. Given that you can fly in any direction in the rooms, many enemies will be hiding in spots you may not think to check, seemingly from almost every angle at times. Most of the enemy ships are braindead and will simply try to run at you, but later on you’ll face smarter AI that avoids attacks and even tries to out maneuver you, so if you’ve not mastered the controls by that point, you’re going to have a very difficult time.

What I didn’t expect was a crafting system, allowing you to create new and different types of weapons for your little ship. Your ship can equip 2 primary and secondary weapons, each with its own type of ammunition. Killing enemies will drop ammo, currency, and sometimes weapons, allowing you to use them for crafting even better guns and missiles. The biggest downfall though is the crafting menu is poorly made and terribly confusing, and it's not helped by the fact there’s no real tutorial of how to use it properly. It actually took me quite a few playthroughs to figure out what I was crafting exactly and if it was going to be better or worse than what I already had.

Granted, you can simply equip the weapons you pick up, but the crafted upgrades are generally better, or used for even higher tier creations. You can also create ship upgrades to suit your play style, if you’re lucky enough to get the parts you need of course. While I’m glad there is a crafting system in place, the confusing menu and UI needs some serious work if they want it to be a focal part of the experience. Many times I crafted a weapon, using up the one I had equipped, only to find out I didn’t like it nearly as much as my original.

Graphically, Sublevel Zero Redux is an awesome blend of retro style low polygons, but almost as if it’s a modern take on Descent with its bright colors and smoothness. Screenshots don’t really do the game justice. The soundtrack is fitting with the overall mood and theme of the game as well. Audio is also retro-like with its upbeat tunes, but it has a sci-fi vibe to its tonality. I never once had to mute the audio or play my own playlist, which is a big win.

Normally I’m not big into roguelike games that tend to punish you for dying, but something kept me coming back for just one more try. Maybe it was the soundtrack, or flying with precision after hours of practice, but it never felt unfair when I did die. With only a handful of control schemes, it may take some time to find one that feels just right, and that’s not even including the steep learning curve for the 6DoF controls.

If you were a fan of Forsaken or Descent from back in the day, Sublevel Zero Redux is a no brainer, as it plays great once you learn it, looks fresh, and sounds great. Sure, it has some hiccups, but if you didn’t grow up in that era or are new to this type of genre, it’s a decent game to jump in with, as long as you know it will take some dedicated practice to learn how to fly how you want to without having to think about it.

Overall: 7.8 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 7.5 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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