Sublevel Zero wants to be Descent so badly, but modern design elements constantly push that nostalgic feel away.
Sublevel Zero, on the surface, is a love letter to Descent: a first-person spaceship game from the 90's. I was intrigued. Few people have attempted to replicate the Descent experience since Interplay stopped making it over a decade ago: spelunking in zero-G while shooting at robots, reading a 3D map trying desperately not to get lost. In fact, the only other example I’m aware of is presently a Kickstarter to make a clone of the game that’s multiplayer only. Who that game will be for is anyone’s guess, but what Sigtrap promised with Sublevel Zero sounded good to me.
Sadly, that promise ends up being a veneer. Sublevel Zero looks and plays like Descent only at the highest level. Once you get any deeper, it is stuffed with modern game systems that have no place being there.
Most games, even games trying to behave like older ones, are improved by the introduction of modern game design. Autosaving, context prompts, persistent progress…plenty of trends from the recent-ish past would have improved games from prior to their standardization. Some elements, however, are only used because they are presently “in” and it feels like Sigtrap fell prey to zeitgeist constantly while making Sublevel Zero.
Most of the trouble comes from the roguelike elements. The levels are procedurally generated, which would work if exploration wasn’t so important in the game that inspired this one. You have to avoid making broken or frustrating levels when you use computation for the job, and to do this efficiently in 3D space the layouts have to made from pre-fab pieces that largely thwart the feeling of navigating a peculiar space. There are times when you can get away with randomly generating worlds and encounters; Descent is not one of those times. Flying through the same couple dozen slightly modified areas gets monotonous, and at the same time you don’t build a true familiarity or comfort with the world the way you would in a game like Dark Souls. If you hit a rough patch, you get whisked all the back to the beginning again instead of being given another chance to tackle the obstacle. In a game like Spelunky or Rogue Legacy--where each individual game only lasts 5 minutes anyway--that's fine, but Sublevel Zero's experience is slightly too long to let cheapshots from unseen foes end it without giving the player some means of retribution.
There is also a general numbers overload that pervades the experience. You have bullets, energy, plasma, nanites, inventory slots, and shield counters to pay attention to at all times. Nearly every item you pick up has a modifier like “slow” or “riot” or “timid” that alters the stats of items in minute but still relevant ways. You can craft weapons but only by combining other specific weapons plus some nanites. This is way too much to think about in a game about shooting robots in caves. The decisions you make in the crafting and equipment menu could mean the difference between life and death, but only at the margins and telling the difference is all bean-counting, which is the worst of both worlds. I’m not opposed to the crafting system; upgrading weapons and engines and such by combining them could be a welcome improvement to randomly spawning better stuff over time. It just doesn't need to be this dense.
In the same mold of minor but important nags, you will occasionally level up your ship. This gives you the option to select one of three “upgrades”, nearly all of which are actually trade-offs. You can increase bullet damage at a slight cost to plasma and energy damage; you gain passive HP regen when you’re badly damaged, but you lose some of your max HP. Virtually all of these options discourage diversity in your loadout. There have been times when I’ve wanted to opt out of “upgrading” entirely, because none of the options looked good. This system flat out sucks. I’m not even sure how I would change it; it’s just unnecessary.
I’m trying to avoid saying that Sigtrap’s mistake was in trying to innovate on the Descent formula. That would send the wrong message. I can go back and play the original games if that’s all I’m looking for. Maybe Descent’s just a hard act to follow? I hope not; I would love to beat down the next generation of the PTMC. As it stands, though, Sublevel Zero just doesn’t do it for me. For all the flaws of its kitchen sink approach to systems it actually plays alright but, without recapturing the essence of Descent it feels hollow.