Around Christmas 2018, Epic Games released Subnautica for free on the Epic Games Launcher. It was the first free game they ever released, setting a trend that continues to this day and has caused my library to… explode?
Most of these games I never even plan on playing, or boot them up once and forget about. One of these games was Subnautica. I turned it on, swam around and got a few fish, and then decided I wasn’t feeling into the adventure. Fast forward a year or two, I finally gave it a second shot and was absolutely floored. It was easily one of the best and most beautiful games I had ever played, with wonderful twists and turns, exceeding my highest expectations. Yes, while MicMan may have written our review, he was not the only one who enjoyed the adventure.
After getting to the end of the game, wondering how they were ever able to offer such a product for free in the first place, something caught my eye. It was a notice on the menu screen for an upcoming sequel titled: Subnautica: Below Zero. Not much was shown but it sounded AWESOME. I can’t think of a better choice of environment for a sequel – the arctic is mysterious, and I’ve heard loads of things about cool sea life out there. I was very much excited and waited patiently for the game to drop. After some delays, including a major story rework, it’s finally here for us to play and hoo boy did I play it. 20+ hours later, I am now ready to review the sequel to one of my favorite games of all time.
As is obvious from the title, the game takes place in a… cold place. You are following the story of Robin, the sister of an Alterra corporation employee, Sam who was said to have died from an “accident”. Refusing to believe that her sister even had the ability to be so careless, she takes a ship to Sector Zero of the same planet the previous game took place in, 4546B, to investigate the situation for herself. Unfortunately she strikes a meteor on the way down and makes a crash landing. After escaping the burning ship she heads out to the drop pod that was deployed and your adventure begins.
Already things were feeling a little bit flat for me. Still exciting, but the game really starts out the same way the last one did, and with less excitement. No more huge, burning ship in the distance and the same small pod that the previous game began with. I did some exploring and while there were some cool new fish to discover, it quickly became apparent that everything felt a lot like DLC rather than a true sequel. At least for the first chunk of the game, I was collecting mostly the same materials and crafting mostly the same tools, vehicles, and base parts. Also, it could just be me but I feel like I had to gather WAY more materials than in the last game, although I built a much bigger base. Still, it wasn’t anything too crazy and I wouldn’t be surprised if I spent 30-50% of my time just collecting the basic resources like Titanium and Lithium. Honestly, it feels like the grind should have been cut in half. Thankfully there are non-survival modes if you want to play through without worrying about all that though.
Early in the game you encounter an SOS which turns out to be from the same race of aliens (The Architects) encountering one of the species who had uploaded his consciousness into a digital format due to the virus outbreak that was killing off their species. Upon requesting that she find a vessel for his mind to be transferred into, Robin offers her PDA (if you didn’t read the last review, it’s essentially your digital assistant & inventory/data manager used throughout the game). This is technically temporary as you are also tasked with rebuilding a body for this alien, but that is only accomplished towards the end of the game, so be prepared to live with the guy for a while. During the initial transfer Robin experiences some pain and it is revealed that due to the Architect race’s lack of differentiation between cybernetic and organic components, the Alien (who nicknames himself AL-AN) has instead decided to make himself home in Robin’s brain. This is a very cool detail that I don’t see touched on enough in the media covering intelligent alien life. It is entirely possible that they might understand anything from the universe & its laws to emotions in a completely different light than we do, and instances of Robin and the Architect discussing such topics are frequent. These were easily some of my favorite moments in the game, and it brought to mind a question: How would such a discovery impact the faith?
This is a complicated topic, but thankfully our wonderful priest-nerd Fr. Stephen offered to give some insight on the matter. The following two paragraphs are written by him.
“One of the big questions raised by this new turn of events is whether AL-AN would even be considered alive at all or just a simulation of a living person. If it’s the latter, a computer simulation running in Robin’s head sounds a bit like Cortana and the Master Chief in Halo or any of Iron Man’s AI assistants: a helpful (or possibly not) program that almost seems human. We’re not getting into the fine details of AI seeming human, but even a simulation that passes the Turing test (a famous experiment where a robot and a human respond to the same questions, which has yet to be passed by AI) wouldn’t automatically be considered a being with a soul. Every rational being has their own unique soul, but whether that soul could be transferred to a technological body leaving the fleshy body behind is debatable.
From a Catholic perspective, a human soul in a technological body totally separate from human flesh (we’re not talking cyborgs here) seems unlikely, since the Church teaches that the soul and the flesh are created together by God as a unique human person. (CCC 365-366) The death of the body separates the soul from the flesh, but with the promise of their reunion at the Resurrection of the body in the New Creation at the end of time. (CCC 988-1014) With the death of the flesh, what anchors the immortal soul to the world is now removed and so the disembodied soul comes into the presence of God. The philosophical implications of AL-AN being an alien with an immortal soul are massive, especially once he inhabits Robin’s body. A second intellect in the same body seems a bit like a demonic possession, which doesn’t look good for Robin’s prospects, especially if AL-AN is capable of fully taking over. Perhaps the horror of Below Zero goes beyond the jump scares to the existential level of a technological ghost story.”
Thanks, Fr. Stephen! For further insight on the matter I recommend viewers check out Jimmy Akin’s Mysterious World podcast Episode 2 on Transhumanism. We’re not sponsored by them, it’s just a really solid Catholic podcast.
Now, there is a bit more that goes on in the story besides AL-AN’s background, but honestly not much. While you continue to pick up many audio logs created both by Robins’ sister and her coworkers when they were busy working on the planet, it never really amounts to anything that interesting. There is one more mysterious character that is thrown in at a point that was pretty cool but didn’t bring anything super deep or amazing to the table.
At this point I think you kind of understand what I’m getting at. This game feels like a sequel for sure, but.. little else. Not enough new things are actually brought to the table and it definitely left me wishing for more. It was still very much a fun experience, sure, but not something I personally would pay full price for in hindsight. If you really enjoyed the first Subnautica, I would consider picking this up whenever it goes on sale.
Oh, and if you are for some reason reading this without actually having played the first one, well, thank you, but go try the original first (after taking a look at our review, of course).
Gameplay: 4/5 (-1 for occasional bugginess & material grind)
Graphics: 5/5 (Impressive for the price of the game & size of the studio)
Story: 3/5 (Not as interesting as the first game and overall a bit flat for a sequel)
Music: 4/5 (Decent but missing just a little something)
Violence: You have access to weapons like a knife and are able to kill animals, even the cute ones if you are a monster. There are some small blood effects but it is discolored and more meant to make the game realistic rather than violent. Of course, some animals can also attack you and kill you, in a variety of manners, and you can die from drowning or hypothermia, but this always just fades to a black screen. Prepare to be jumpsacred occasionally as well.
Magic/Occult: AL-AN’s inhabitation of Robin could be likened to a sort of possession.
Language: Occasional light swearing. I believe the Lord’s name may have been said in vain a couple times.