29 Hours In: Subterrain – Bullet sponges in space

I was almost immediately reminded of Prey as I started playing Subterrain. So I was all, “YES! This’ll tide me over until June when the next bit of Prey is released or revealed. Huzzah!” And while further playing did indeed reveal the two games have similarities, there’s a lot more that separates them. Not least the form of presentation. Plus, one’s a trihple ayyyy (or, AAA) and t’other’s an indie. But both of those things are besides the point. They are somewhat irrelevant. Why have I mentioned them? Because I can.

Platform: PC

Copy received via April’s Humble Monthly

This was originally posted at r/PCGaming

What Is It?

A survival game set on an infected Mars colony. The ultimate goal is escaping to Earth. To do that you’ve gotta keep meters topped up by eating, drinking, sleeping and defecating. There’s a gradually degrading generator powering the whole colony that you have to keep running and protect. To keep you and it going, you’ve gotta go a’scavenging through the rest of the colony for stuff. Oh, and killing loads of mutants. Urrgh. Arrrgh.

Why Did You Play It?

Practical reasons. I’d tired of playing XCOM 2 for the day (182 hours in the past month). Needed something different and small enough that my crappy Internet connection could download in under an hour. I’d just got Subterrain from Humble Monthly. Steam said:

Uncompromising Sci-Fi survival on Mars! Manage the entire colony single-handed! Craft, Research, Explore and Fight against evolving mutants. Vast open world and randomly generated levels to explore! Can you survive long enough to escape the horror?

That sounded more than acceptable to me. I believed in my ability to escape the horror. Positive thinking! And now here we are. I also now realise I coulda just put the above quote under What Is It? But I ain’t no plagiarist. At least, I hope I’m not. Oh god. Next.

Why Did You Play It For 29 Hours?

It was great at first. Proper great. Lots of atmospheric murk. Pitch black areas with gloomy lighting. Ominous music. There were no firearms to start off with and the game was very much aware of that. So, fights were rare, surprising, slow, and melee focused. They required reasonably careful dashing back and forth, attempting to strike and dodge the infected-colonist-mutants. Who, by the way, are basically quite-fast zombies. They’re not shufflers. They’re jerky joggers. The different areas had distinct enough styles. There was the lure of sweet, sweet upgrades. There was just the right amount of well written, reasonably entertaining notes to read. Survival needs never got in the way of the rest of the game. Seemed to be going swimmingly. I was in.

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Sleeping is worth it, just to see your character’s huddled terror

And, then, basically. All that goes away. And it gets real boring, real fast. It’s all bullet sponges, backtracking and back-pedalling with little reward. Sigh. I kept playing in the hope that it’d return to something in the vein of those glorious first few hours. It didn’t. Boooo. So. I gave up.

What Do You Actually Do?

Get ready for some brief backstory! You’re one Dr. West. A scientist what done a murder. So, he’s in Mars-Prison. He’s about to be transferred to some other Mars-place. As his Mars-cell door starts to open, all the Mars-lights go out and everything goes silent. There’s only a gap in the Mars-cell door! Crap! Luckily. Luckily! There’s an air Mars-vent in his Mars-cell that he can crawl out of.

Once you’re free-ish, you spend the next hour or so wandering the hallways of the Mars-prison. Looking for clues as to what’s happened and why loads of dudes are smeared all over the floor. Then you find a working Mars-tram and head to the excitingly named Central Control.

Here the game gets started proper. Central Control is abandoned and the only place in the colony that is infection free. It’s a safe place to sleep and store stuff you’ve picked up. There are eleven machines here too. They all do different things related to crafting. Researching. Building. Repairing. Mining. Growing. Refining. Recycling. Crafting stuff, basically. And of course, you can’t make everything from the get-go. Someone deleted all the research logs! No way!

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Which machine does what? Only through using them repeatedly will you remember.

To craft better stuff, you have to feed the research machine a piece of gear and it’ll come up with a slightly better version for you to eventually build. But it can only research some things. You’ve gotta upgrade its software to research better stuff. Same goes for all the other machines and their respective tasks. The software upgrades are dotted around the colony. They’re the rewards for completing Subterrain’s levels. Their locations vaguely hinted at in the few logs you find.

Oh! And guess what! Oh, you’ll never guess. Ha. Yeah, you will. Most of the machines are turned off when you arrive. So, you have to visit the departments that they’re controlled from to turn them on. Luckily, they’re all just down some stairs from Central Control and they’re full of infected. Mutants can’t use stairs, BTW. These departments are also where you’ll install the software upgrades you find as the game progresses.

This is where the previously mentioned generator comes into play. It produces a limited amount of power. And this number constantly drops, because the power cores degrade over time. Which means you’ve gotta choose which sections of the colony to power and keep an eye on the generator’s state of repair. Choosing which section to power is easy – whichever place you’re about to explore, duh. You can repair existing cores and build more. If it blows up, game over. If you’re using more power than it can produce, it takes three ingame hours to overheat and blow up. So, you should have time to get back and flick some switches off or build some more cores.

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This is the generator and that’s all I have to say about that.

The generator also needs defending. Ergh. There are four entrances to the generator room. One for you. Three for mutants. Lucky mutants! The latter three are blocked off by toxic waste. You can’t go and shut the doors at the end of them. So, every few days a whole bunch of aware-of-the-importance-of-generators-to-human-survival-on-Mars mutants invade and try to destroy the generator. Yippee.

A Tale of Ten Billion Bullet Sponges

Bar one minor enemy, all the monsters you’ll face are large and slow moving enough that aiming is never a problem. Persistence is key to winning fights. Persistence and back-pedalling. There’s no real strategy. You run backwards and shoot forwards until the monster chasing you dies. This can often take close to a minute per monster, because they take sooooooo much damage. Some melee weapons have knockback effects, but past the opening hours, using melee weapons is not a viable form of combat. There are too many enemies and your hitbox seems much larger than theirs. Plus, if they hit or touch you. You get stuck. Leaving you open to more damage. And you can’t take very many hits.

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This chubby git will actually break your legs

There are a couple of mutants that spit at you, which are trickier to kill. But only because many of the corridors you’ll backpedal down are so narrow. Your character takes up less than half the width of the corridor, but his hitbox seems to take up more than that. Argh! Oh, and did I mention that some of these narrow corridors have random things placed up against the walls or in the centre of them? Random things that are the same colour as the floor? You definitely will backpedal into and get stuck on them. Hooray!

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Spot the not-floor

It all too quickly becomes a bit of a slog. As the days pass, the infection evolves and so to, do the enemies. By day 20, enemies take so, so, so much damage. And that’s the only reason there’s any challenge to the game. Not because it requires much in the way of skill. As long as there’s a corridor for you to backpedal down, you’ll probably be okay.

Ha! Or not. One of the mutants can open doors.

So, if while scouting out a corridor, trying to get your bearings, you leave a room unexplored. Its door closed. Inevitably you’ll get chased back up the corridor by a behemoth or two. The door you ignored will be open. And there’ll be mutants behind you! But you won’t see them, because you can only see what’s in front of you. Yay! And unless you’re shooting a mutant, they make absolutely no noise. No footsteps. No nothing. Blergh. This lack of aural feedback applies when enemies die too. They just kinda, slowly melt away. There’s no animation or sound. You will waste ammo shooting an already dead bad.

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This golden bastard can somehow open doors

You have to build guns. They’re all made up of three craftable parts. A core part, a heatsink, and a barrel. The core dictates what type the gun is and how much damage it does. The heatsink affects how many times you can fire a gun before it overheats, and you literally drop it on the floor. Barrels marginally increase the “Critical damage” stat. Maybe the mutants have weak spots! Maybe I’ve got it all wrong! There is an element of skill! Oh. No. There’s a “Critical chance” stat. It’s just down to chance if you get a critical hit. Double blergh.

There are four guns in the game. They’re all upgradable. One is a special one that takes ages to unlock that I never found. The other three are standard fare. Pistol, SMG and shotgun. The pistol’s a pistol. The SMG often misses, regardless of how well you aim. There’s no accuracy stat, mind. The shotgun, as is demanded of all space horror games, feels pretty good. But overheats far too quickly and uses loads of the shared ammo pack your guns use. Sigh.

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Possibly the absolute best thing that has ever been said in a fight ever

Explore. Collect. Go home. Repeat.

Once you’ve got Central Control up and running, you’ll need to start upgrading the machines, so you can escape Mars. From what I gather you end up building a space shuttle to get you home. This means you have to head out to explore the rest of the colony to find the all sorts you’ll need.

There are various locales on Mars. A plaza, a hotel, a casino, and several more. They’re somewhat distinguishable from each other. Each section is functionally a dungeon. It has one pre-designed ground floor. And then five lower levels that are procedurally generated. At the end of the fifth, you’ll find a precious software upgrade.

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A hotel lobby that is temporarily free from goddamn mutant scum

To begin, each section lacks oxygen and heating. So, you have to search for their respective generators and replace the filters. They could be on any of the five floors. Until you do that, you have to rely on your own personal supply of O2 and heat. Added to that, each of the six floors starts off dark. You have to search for a power switch to turn the lights on on every floor. This switch also activates each floor’s elevator, which allows you to return to it and the upper level when necessary. You will use these elevators a lot. A lot a lot.

Exploration takes bleedin’ ages. And not because there’s loads of stuff to explore. It’s just that there are so many bads in the way that it takes forever. What with you having to head home over and over and over again to restock your ammo, O2 or heating. Initially, all of these last reasonable amounts of time. Plus, you can bring extra canisters. But. Because the enemies take so long to kill, they run out relatively quickly. Time for some maths! On more than one occasion, it’s taken me four round trips to clear one floor, because I had to keep going home to stock up on more ammo. Multiply this by six floors per dungeon. Equals twenty-four round trips to clear a dungeon. Or, a lot of backtracking.

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Get used to this screen as you travel between your base and wherever it is you’re currently exploring

Apart from killing, exploration also involves looting. You’ll find items that can be recycled and eventually turned into upgrades. Bits of food to eat. The odd journal. Nothing you haven’t looted ten million times before. Oh! And the odd toilet to perform your ablutions in. Eventually, you’ll reach and clear the last floor and a software upgrade. Better gear ahoy!

Or not. The final straw for me was when I spent so, so many real hours working towards upgrading my weapons. I cleared the part of the colony where the research upgrade was. Found the software I needed. Cleared the part of the colony where the engineering upgrade was. Found that software too. Did all the extra fiddling around and researching them that needed to be done. Fought my way through the re-infested respective departments so I could install my new software. Finally, I built the upgrades. My SMG went from doing 30-40 damage per shot. To 31-41 damage per shot. And that was it for me. It just felt like pissing in the wind.

Anything Else?

For some reason the game goes out of its way to make itself as hard to see as possible. Not just in the dark. There’s a weird, murky filter that kind of looks like fog. This’d be fine, if it didn’t turn everything greybrown and make it much harder to see things on the floor that you can’t walk through. Not helpful for all the backpedalling, let me tell you. Took me ten hours or so to realise I could turn it off by unselecting ‘Environment Effects’ in the graphics settings. Phew.

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Environment Effects on and off

Oh, and there’s a soundtrack available as DLC. Over my 29 hours, I only noticed two different tracks. So probably don’t buy that. TBH, I think I’ve only added this paragraph out of disappointment and spite.

TLDR

Subterrain starts off with so much promise. Its survival needs are balanced to the point that you don’t feel like they get in the way, as is so often a crime of the genre. The writing is minimal, but solid and mildly witty. There’s a lot of atmosphere and it sells its world well. The art style is generic, but functional and it looks pretty good in motion.

But as the ingame days pass, the enemies evolve and start to take more and more damage. They’re not hard to fight, but they are hard to kill. The length of these fights completely throws the survival needs off balance and makes what would be an interesting, reasonably fun little game take so much longer than it needs to. The few and far between upgrades you win make little difference to the situation and it begins to feel like a huge waste of time. A real shame.

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