At the dawn of the “Doom Cones”, Interplay tried to take the genre in a new direction with Descent; a first-person flying space game where you traverse a maze, find the core, destroy it and escape in time, much akin to the destruction of the Death Star in Return of the Jedi. Unlike first-person shooters, these “Descent clones” never took off despite praise in the media. Roll on the years and the genre is seemingly making a comeback. The question is, has the genre moved on from the familiar mechanics with Sublevel Zero Redux?
Sublevel Zero Redux is a game similar in playstyle to roguelike games where you have perma-death, craftable items and procedurally generated maps. After every death or new game, the layout of the maps will change, keeping things fresh and different each time. Due to the nature of a 6DOF Shooter (six degrees of freedom shooter), navigating these environments normally is tricky, but Sigtrap Games has added a very nice and easy to view map that you can bring up at a press of a button.
Unlike the environment, the map is essentially hollowed out to show only the outline of the room you have discovered. Connecting these rooms are doors, which can be either the standard doors that you can open or have a light around them designating the colour of the key required to pass through them. And crosses on the map shows that the doors are closed and can’t be opened, effectively a dead-end. This is reflected in the environment itself. so it’s not hard to get lost.
This is a very good thing, because at times you will be rapidly flying through the rooms at quite the pace while either trying to avoid or kill enemies with your arsenal of weapons at your disposal. When you start the game for the first time, you’re given a few weapons to try out, an autocannon, a dumbfire missile launcher and a pulsar cannon.
Throughout the game, you’re able to pick up loot boxes, loot from destroyed enemies and from destroying the final core. From this loot, you can use them on crafting items to upgrade your gunship’s hull and weapons. Crafting an item typically requires you to spend a certain amount of nanites (a form of currency) and two items. These items will create an all new item which has combined stats from the items which you fused together, but there are subtle differences between the stats rather than forming an overpowered item from the start.
For instance, if I wanted to create a minigun, I would require to use an autocannon, a pulsar cannon and 600 nanites. Despite the level of the weapon being similar to other weapons while crafting, the minigun fires much faster and accurately, but its damage is significantly reduced compared to the other weapons.
Instead of crafting, some weapons can simply be instantly equipped. As you have only two slots for both missiles and cannons, you would need to swap out one of the cannon weapons before equipping the minigun. You’re able to craft new hulls and engines to help give you more health and engine power to get through each map. Some gunships allow for you to ram the enemies, these gunships have higher hit points than the others, so there’s less of a penalty for ramming. To unlock the new gunships, you need to achieve certain requirements such as destroying 150 enemies via ramming, and destroying 300 enemies with plasma weapons.
It is important to note that when looking through the menus that you make sure you’re in a safe area, because the game does not pause and wait for you to sort out your gear; I found this out at quite the awkward moment, leading to a great ball of fire. This is what the game excels at, enemies that surprise you by coming at you from all angles, some enemies have AI decent enough that it will try to outflank you, or work together to surround you in a way that you can quite easily be destroyed if you’re not wary of your surroundings.
The map generation is handled extremely well and not once forcing you into an unwinnable situation. Almost all maps make sense and are structured in a way that you can navigate around them. While each room can look different, there are multiple rooms that are the same, just skinned differently. Once you’ve learned how the rooms are setup up, then navigating them is just a matter of knowing where the doors are situated in each room – just keep a lookout for the enemies as they’re not in the same place each time!
There are many different renditions of enemies that try to foil your plans at destroying the core in each level, ranging from your standard cannon based enemies to your mean flamethrower and bouncing bomb types. That’s not what you should be watching yourself on, though. Upon playing the game for the first time, I was greeted with a core that went down in a blaze of glory, only for the next level to have me killed by the core by firing off a stream of hail at my visor. It was such a blanket of white that it was hard to see anything. I don’t think I’ve ever died so quickly.
These maps, enemies and effects look very pseudo-voxel based. This gives the game its retro look, but at the same time the entire game glows like a sea of lights on the water. It looks stunning on screen and you need to experience it to understand its fluidity. Couple that with ultra-smooth controls, and you get a game that’s beyond satisfying to play.
There are some oddities that do baffle me, such as the menus only being able to be navigated via the analogue sticks and not the D-Pad. Not being able to change the controls manually but instead having several layouts to choose from (this is a major gripe as for a game that requires strafing plus the full 6DOF rotation, you really need to have a custom control layout).
One last issue is the lack of looting and equipping. The game allows for you to craft weapons, hulls and engines, yet you’re limited to standard equipment. Essentially, you have engines that make you go faster, a hull that gives you more health and weapons that are slightly stronger than the last with no real variance.
What Sigtrap Games could and should have done is gone that extra bit further and allowed for you to craft a little bit more and have element-based weapons, such as a minigun that rains explosive bullets on enemies and cause more damage at the cost of accuracy, or have a flamethrower that instead becomes a freezer gun. Essentially something that would allow players to think what to take into their next map and change their strategy.
Sigtrap Games however has added in some surprising things that I would not have expected, such as a field of view slider (for those that get motion sickness), procedural levels, and crafting. In a genre that is born from, and synonymous with, first-person shooters, it is nice to see the Descent mould being taken in a new direction where roguelike games are becoming ever more popular.
There are some other nice touches to the game, which includes being able to see what weapons you have equipped depending on the model used, the feeling of the impact when an enemy or yourself gets hit, the screen shaking during explosions, and the animations of enemies drifting to one side in a ball of fire before exploding into pieces. It is all marvellous and enhanced with a fantastic set of sci-fi sounds.
The soundtrack is also superb. It feels very sci-fi, yet peaceful at the same time. There is none of that upbeat racing music that gets your heart pumping like an athlete, it’s calm enough that lets you concentrate and hear the game itself, and not putting you off. It’s good enough to leave the game on the menu screen just to listen to.
If you want to try something new in the first-person genre, then seriously check out Sublevel Zero Redux. It’s a game that will be kept on my playlist for a long-while to come, and despite its minor oddities and nuances, the game is well-rounded, fast paced, and a right blast of a game that deserves to be in everyone’s library.