Wel­come to life be­hind Mars’ bars

XBox: The Official Magazine (US) - - REVIEW - Matt Gil­man

You know those scenes in sci-fi hor­ror films when a char­ac­ter has to fix or hack some­thing, usu­ally in a hurry as they’re be­ing hunted down, their oxy­gen is run­ning out, or they’re fly­ing into the sun? This game is kind of like a top-down 2D sim­u­la­tor of that.

Some­times it’s woe­fully con­vo­luted, thanks to ob­scure sys­tems and con­trols, other times it’s deeply at­mo­spheric, thanks to great light­ing work and world build­ing—and the com­bi­na­tion is a gam­ing ex­pe­ri­ence which forces you into bouts of fran­tic panic. It’s unique, too, which is re­fresh­ing con­sid­er­ing this is a mash­ing to­gether of tried-and-tested tropes from the hor­ror and sur­vival gen­res— not sur­vival hor­ror.

You play as Dr Al­bert West, who, af­ter 15 months in a prison within a min­ing colony on Mars, sud­denly finds him­self with no guards to de­liver his grub, and no fel­low in­mates to plait his hair. With things look­ing equal parts grim and in­trigu­ing, West frees him­self from his cell and finds the colony aban­doned, with but a few

“It’s on you, with your civvy brain, to mas­ter clever, com­plex sys­tems”

mu­tated be­ings and in­fected en­gi­neers to keep him com­pany (read: tear his face off).

As West, the com­plex be­fore you is, well, com­plex—a con­vo­luted warren of ran­domly gen­er­ated maps which prove hard to pass, es­pe­cially as each area you try to ex­plore needs a power sup­ply, boasts sub-zero tem­per­a­tures, and has hardly any oxy­gen. To ex­plore beyond the rel­a­tively safe core of the colony, you need to fig­ure out how this gi­ant cor­po­rate fa­cil­ity, with its casi­nos, mines, and power sup­plies, fits to­gether. You need to get gen­er­a­tors up and run­ning, then wan­der through pitch-black cor­ri­dor sys­tems with a flick­er­ing torch, search­ing for each level’s power switch. You need to work out how to get a 3D printer up and run­ning by find­ing bro­ken spare parts and re­pair­ing them, but only once you’ve found a way to get a re­pair ma­chine off the fritz.

Dead planet

The un­con­vinc­ingly mas­ter­ful he­roes in the afore­men­tioned film scenes— per­haps a space­ship’s chef who ran­domly knows how to fire a gun, hack a ter­mi­nal, or re­pair an oxy­gen fil­ter—would be handy here. But in

Subter­rain it’s all you, with your sweet, empty civvy brain, try­ing to fig­ure out com­pli­cated sys­tems that re­ally do feel like some­thing built by some­one much clev­erer than you. While that can make for a might­ily frus­trat­ing ex­er­cise at times, like build­ing IKEA fur­ni­ture with­out the in­struc­tion book, it feels great when you mus­cle through and get a task right. Try­ing to fig­ure out how to get a tem­per­a­ture reg­u­la­tor up and run­ning when you’re about to pass out from hy­pother­mia is sat­is­fy­ingly tense stuff.

This is a brave and dis­tinct game, then, but it’s not a looker. Top-down per­spec­tives can be a use­ful tool, es­pe­cially in hor­ror, as they leave im­por­tant de­tails, such as the face of your pro­tag­o­nist or their en­e­mies’ snarling mugs, to the imag­i­na­tion. But here it can make you feel de­tached from the lo­ca­tions, and some­times rather lost, as ev­ery­where—be it a mine or casino—looks much the same: metal cor­ri­dors, cor­ru­gated floor­ing, an oc­ca­sional ten­dril-cov­ered float­ing eye­ball beast. The fact that so many places look iden­ti­cal drags you clear of the po­ten­tial for im­mer­sion pretty quickly, and the hole it knocks in the game’s re­al­ism negates any pow­ers of imag­i­na­tion you might be us­ing to fill the gaps.

This is a sur­pris­ing lit­tle gem of a hor­ror game on the Xbox Store, and one that en­thu­si­asts of hard sci-fi should cer­tainly check out. To en­joy it, though, you need to em­brace its com­plex­i­ties—to have them be a part of the hor­ror, rather than let them push you en­tirely away.

right Ev­ery time you reach a new area you have to ex­plore in the dark and find a power switch to turn the lights on. Tense stuff.

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