Welcome to life behind Mars’ bars
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.
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.
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.