Subnautica: Below Zero (Switch) Review
It doesn’t feel like it’s been over six years since the original first-person underwater survival and exploration game Subnautica hit early access, all the way back in 2014. Now there’s a sequel to this entertaining take on the survival genre, Subnautica: Below Zero takes us back under the waves of Planet 4546B. Can survival in the deadly yet wondrous alien ocean still feel fresh? Hop into your Seatruck and have a scan of this review.
Robin has come to Planet 4546B to find out what happened to her sister Sam, with her employer Alterra claiming her own negligence killed her. Landing on the icy world, you quickly discover if you don’t stay in the water, you’ll die pretty quickly too. Not that being in the water will mean you’re safe when you have limited oxygen and all of the dangers of the ocean waiting for you. Alterra has much more going on than covering up Sam’s death when you come across a mysterious AI that ups the stakes in ways I don’t want to spoil. If you’ve played the original Subnautica, you’ll have some idea what’s in store as Below Zero is a continuation of the overarching story. If you haven’t played the original, don’t worry. Below Zero won’t put you out of your depth.
To engage with the story, you will be spending a lot of time with the open world, survival/crafting part of the game. Progression is easily gated off by requiring upgrades and crafting items/vehicles that will enable you to get to the more dangerous parts of the sea. Especially early on, if you go too deep with the basic equipment, you’ll find your oxygen depletes quickly, and you’re as good as dead. The last time I played the original Subnautica, there wasn’t much of a story, so seeing how much of a story there is in Below Zero to keep you moving forward took some adjusting. You don’t have to keep moving the story along constantly; if you want to stop and smell the sea roses, you can forage, build and survive. If you’re more interested in enjoying the story and keeping it moving along, you might have a more challenging time. You need to go looking for parts scattered throughout the area, so you can make new crafting recipes to improve your underwater capabilities. Fortunately, Subnautica is enjoyable to play with, so swimming around and making new toys to get around in will give you many hours of fun.
Subnautica makes the underwater world look like a familiar yet alien world, with weird unusual creatures, interesting caves, and natural structures. You spend enough time exploring for resources, and for exploration’s sake, you’ll become familiar with all the different environments hiding under the icy surface. Your home base is a small pod, enough room for a fabricator and a storage locker which you’ll quickly fill up. Just like the original game, you’ll be expanding your humble little base into a facility as large as you want. Whether you want a nice big fancy spot to return to, or if you just want to expand enough for all the upgrades and storage, the world’s your oyster. While it is nice having your underwater base, building it isn’t so fun. Just like other games in this building/crafting genre, a controller isn’t the most intuitive for the fine controls afforded by a mouse and keyboard. So I didn’t engage with it too much. Instead, I kept my building basic to ensure I had whatever I needed to keep the story going.
While you have your health meter, you need to keep an eye on your limited oxygen as soon as you hit the water. When on the frozen surface, you’ll have to try and keep your temperature from dropping too low. Now you can also play with an ever-dwindling hunger and thirst meter, having to catch fish to turn into drinkable water and food. If you don’t want to worry about food and drink, you can start a game without them and play at a more relaxed pace. While there are water sources and food in abundance near your home base, it can feel like unnecessary meter management given you already have health, oxygen and temperature meters to deal with. You can also take on a hardcore run. You get one life, die and you’re starting all over. If you enjoy exploring the ocean and taking in the sights and sounds, you can also hop into creative mode. There are no meters to worry about or story getting in the way of you building and enjoying Planet 4546B.
Exploring the ocean is freeing compared to open-world games that keep you somewhat grounded. While there is the dark, crushing depths to overcome, the snow-capped world above is still important to Robin’s quest for the truth and onwards. Given that the game’s real meat is under the sea, the on-foot never feels as good as the swimming and piloting vehicles part.
When I heard the two Subnautica games were heading to the Switch, I had my concerns, knowing how badly some open-world survival games have run in the past. It turns out the concerns were all for nothing. Even better is how it looks good on the handheld mode.
While the Switch will be the most visually downgraded version, it still manages to make the ocean world look good. Seeing the different weather patterns is impressive, especially when you can see from underwater. Some favourites are the bright red sky through the shimmering water and when hail penetrates through the surface of the water. Overall, Below Zero runs well on the Switch, as long as you don’t mind using a controller.
Subnautica: Below Zero does a great job at giving Subnautica fans a new part of the world to discover. All packed in with a story and interactions to help you not feel so alone in the world this time around. Planet 4546B is still an amazing underwater world filled with weird and dangerous wildlife. The story helps keep you focused if you want to see everything there to see with some goals to aim for. Or, if you wish, you can focus on gathering resources, building up your base and soak in the world at your own pace. Subnautica: Below Zero is a solid game on the Switch, and both runs and looks better than expected. If you want an enjoyable survival game or underwater exploration game, you should dive in.
+ An enjoyable ocean survival/crafting game
+ A solid Switch port
+ The ocean world is still a joy to explore
- Building using the controller isn’t easy
- On foot sections aren’t as good as being under the waves