Sublevel Zero hit Steam back in 2015, and now developer Sigtrap is ready to expand on the game in the form of a console version, and it's called Sublevel Zero Redux. We've seen many, many indie titles over the past few years trying to invoke a sense of nostalgia by basing their games on more old-fashioned design, design that in this case takes you back to a time where 3D gaming on console and PC was in its infancy.
The game begins with a short description of its backstory, a backstory which is more or less completely and utterly useless when it comes to playing the actual game. It's about humanity reaching deep within the galaxy and forming clans as they do so. They ended up fighting each other, and because of this, the very fabric of reality began to disintegrate. Now, you're fighting on a space station which has been sucked into another dimension... and, you know, you don't want to be there, so you have to fight your way out. There's no actual narrative during gameplay, so all of the exposition is dumped into your lap at the start. The rest you'll have to scramble for by finding notes around the station.
The mechanical structure of the game is a straight vehicular shooter designed around the philosophy of "six degrees of freedom". That means that you're controlling a small spaceship hovering around the station, that can look in all directions. Likewise, your enemies can attack from all angles, and it's in this very element that the game's greatest strength lies. The battles are challenging and at times chaotic, especially when enemies swarm your position. Every enemy is a particular type of drone, which belongs to a certain faction, and they all behave in very distinct ways. It might be a stationary cannon which simply fires at your position, or a small drone flying in an unpredictable pattern. You're constantly on the lookout, and you always have to move around and spend your projectiles wisely.
It's very easy to discern the retro-inspired roots of the game as you play, and that's both in the sound and the graphics departments. The music is as you'd expect; classical music with a modern edge. It's not particularly innovative, but it gets the job done, adding to the already intense action. It does feel like the game needs more ambient background noise though. There's an eerie silence to the space station that's not scary or immersive, but actually rather odd as you gently hover through its more open spaces and cramped hallways. It does create an atmosphere, though, and the silence does serve a specific purpose - when an enemy drone or ship roars towards you out of nowhere, you quickly have to adjust and veer your ship off of a collision course. This confusion is a part of the experience, but it's also annoying as the enemies themselves aren't visually distinct from the environments. They just pop out of nowhere, and while this creates surprise, it also speaks to the blandness of their designs.
The visuals themselves consist mainly of sprawling pastel colours, which gives the entire experience a sort of psychedelic feeling, and if you play for an extended period of time, you'll run the risk of seeing stereoscopically for the remainder of the day. Sadly, it's not really possible to play for an extended amount of time, because of the game's length. It's really, really short, unless of course you truly love the gameplay enough to warrant several play-throughs. The levels themselves are procedurally generated, so that should keep some of the steam inside the kettle, but the environments aren't particularly exciting, and the game ultimately has little to offer besides some nostalgic gameplay. Sure, you'll find upgrades throughout that make your weapons and overall ship more efficient, and this is made necessary due to the fact that there are no save points. If you die, you have to start over, and this roguelike-like design is an acquired taste, for sure.
Sublevel Zero is an acceptable little shooter, but after playing it for a little while, it simply ends up getting dull. There's not enough context surrounding the core gameplay loop, and there's not enough meat on the bone to justify coming back for more. The story is non-existent, and upgrades can't keep you hooked forever. It's an entertaining little retro experience, but perhaps mainly for fans of Descent.