When creating a new game in a familiar genre, it doesn’t hurt to crib from the best to give your own game some relatable meat, but this only works if you have a proper understanding how the best in the genre got to be in that position to begin with, as well as adding something to the genre soup yourself. Survival horror is one such place where it’s surprisingly difficult for the touchstones of power to be connected on a consistent basis, even if attempts at innovation are made. Subterrain blends both classic and modern horror and survival tropes into a familiar, yet involving game.
Subterrain is a top down survival horror set in an underground facility on Mars. Our protagonist, Dr.West, narrates the story of how he ended up there, imprisoned and under armed guard before he discovers the place has become seemingly abandoned. After engineering his escape from his cell, he finds that some kind of infestation has caused mass carnage and an evacuation he missed out on. Most chilling of all, he soon knows he isn’t alone.
The survival of this survival horror is very much rooted in the modern style of crafting and management. You’ll collect scrap items for forging new items and for repairing essential facility items such as power supplies, oxygen filters, and temperature controls. You also have to manage your health, hunger, and hygiene, with food and drink having an adverse effect on your bladder and bowel movements. Bluntly put, you need to visit bathrooms to urinate and defecate when the occasion arises or suffer the knock on your overall health.
The early hours of Subterrain are a rather lonely affair. The first areas you access have plenty of the bloody aftermath of the initial outbreak, with bodies strewn about the place in various states of ruin, and blood smearing the metal flooring of the facility, but there’s little in the way of life aside from the odd half-mad survivor you have to obliterate. The repetitive thud of the industrial-esque soundtrack breeds a fear of something ominous on the horizon. It’s a fine bit of tension-building that settles in just long enough to put you at ease in time for the steady escalation of walking atrocities that lay ahead.
The early tasks revolve around keeping yourself fed, watered, and rested, whilst exploring and raiding the nearby areas. As soon as you get access to the power supply, the real game begins. The locked off areas are more heavily infested with the rogue infection, and that’s played havoc with the residents’ molecular structure. In these parts of the facility, power, oxygen levels, and temperature control are usually on the fritz, meaning you’ll often find yourself in near-darkness, embroiled in a triple threat for your existence from suffocation, freezing, and being eviscerated. While restoring power and air provide you with some help in your scavenger hunting, allowing you to be further and further from the relative safety of your hub base and build up a bigger supply of food, drink, supplies and weaponry (a variety of customisable guns are on offer alongside some melee weapons). Whacking the heating on though, that may be beneficial, but it also allows the infection to thrive, meaning the chance of meeting more and more nightmarish creatures becomes a reality. The juggling act of your personal survival is an ever-increasing swirl of stress and panic but admirably not a task that ever feels particularly unfair. In fact, Subterrain’s crisis management is really rather well-implemented.
Once you’re in the thick of things, with every hope you had hurtling towards certain doom, you’ll quickly realise that Subterrain expects you to die and learn. There’s a constant air of uncertainty about the facility, even beyond your first run, and that means you’re constantly struggling against everything the game throws at you until you gain enough experience to solve the problem. The ever-ticking clock that is the game world’s growing infestation means you can’t just edge forward in small increments, you have to find a balance between rational thinking and hopeless abandon. There’s no harm in failure here, you have to fail in Subterrain if you’re ever going to last for a significant length of time. The game is very good at outlining where you went wrong without being explicit with the details, a feat that many games struggle with. This core dynamic elevates Subterrain beyond its smaller misgivings and strengthens its position as a credible horror and a credible survival game.
Those misgivings I mentioned are indeed small things when treated individually, but had the core of Subterrain not been so well conceived, then they had the potential to really dilute your enjoyment. The music is delightfully foreboding for the first hour or two, but the one note style of it becomes little more than background noise after that. A touch more variety would have been nice there.
The presentation could also have done with some alteration. It’s fine in terms of style, but text is almost criminally small, and there’s a lot of text to read in Subterrain. It’s readable for me, someone with decent enough eyesight, but it’ll be a strain for anyone with eye issues. Another minor gripe I had is tied into this problem too, as the early tutorials are a pain to read, and it doesn’t help that some relatively simple things are left somewhat needlessly ambiguous. Perfectly content for that to be the case with things beyond the opening, but the start could have been just a touch gentler on you.
The last grumble on my list is to do with the combat. While it is pretty serviceable generally-speaking, it can feel a tad unreliable at times, with melee weapons being especially hit and miss. A small tweak would probably solve that problem, but as it is, combat is mostly just ‘okay.’
Subterrain is a pleasant surprise. A pretty effective horror that uses its survival tropes rather sensibly. The simplicity of the top-down visuals don’t detract from the foreboding atmosphere, and the busywork is given real impetus thanks to the ticking clock of your impending doom. It may start slow, and have a few minor irritations that might hamper your enjoyment, but this survival horror package is well crafted and a grim delight full of meaningful trial and error.