Subnautica: Below Zero review: What is a sequel?

Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Unknown Worlds Entertainment /

Title: Subnautica: Below Zero
Developer: Unknown Worlds
Publisher: Unknown Worlds
Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS5, Xbox Series X|S, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Release Date: May 14, 2021

What makes a good sequel?

Well, a ton of different things actually, as this is a complex question. However, pretty much all of those things can be funneled into two main categories: world-building and thematic expansion.

A sequel should take the vital elements of its predecessor and expand on those in meaningful and thoughtful ways. If your book takes place in a wonderful land of fantasy, you need to explore parts of the map that were not seen in the follow-up. If your movie is about overcoming one’s internal demons/flaws to become stronger, then your sequel needs to test the self-respect/confidence that your main character developed in the original.

It is important to do this while respecting the original work, whether you made it or not. If your hero saved the city, got the girl, and finally was given the respect he desired at the end of the first story, then it makes no sense if the sequel starts with him hated, alone, and right back where he started the journey. This cheapens the foundation, disrespects the established audience, and makes for an uneventful experience.

Subnautica: Below Zero review
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There are a ton of great sequels to look to: “Shrek 2,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Aliens,” Catching Fire (the book not the movie), Golden Son (criminally underrated YA series. Please read Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series; it is not another Hunger Games rip off, although it initially starts that way), any sequel Cassandra Clare has ever written.

Video games have also had their share of great sequels: Halo 3, Half-Life 2, Kingdom Hearts 2, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Resident Evil 2 and 8 (for two completely different reasons), Silent Hill 2, Metal Gear Solid, Dark Souls 2, Mass Effect 2, God of War 2 and God of War (2018) (for two completely different reasons again). Video games are a much harder medium to nail the sequel for because the player often will feel a personal connection/investment in the story since they are the one controlling the characters.

Subnautica: Below Zero is the highly anticipated follow-up to 2018’s Subnautica. Like its predecessor, it spent years in early access and open development, allowing for players to play the game as it was being built, while also providing the developers with not just free beta testers, but ones that paid them.

Subnautica: Below Zero review
Unknown Worlds Entertainment /

Subnautica caught on with YouTubers and Twitch streamers, which largely fueled its success. The Leviathan Reapers represented a fun “scared reaction for thumbnail” opportunity, the sea was vast and full of interesting things to do, and the devs were active with many large Youtubers.

However, the game lacked replayability.  No multiplayer, no procedurally generated worlds, no DLC, nothing worth going back to. So players were only really interested in diving in once, maybe twice to try out the hardcore mode. For that reason, Subnautica entered and exited the public’s attention in less than a few months.

Subnautica: Below Zero is obviously Unknown Worlds’ answer to trying to get back into the public discourse.

It takes the gameplay formula that they fine-tuned with Subnautica and expands it a bit. There are new secrets to be found, a wide variety of Leviathan class monsters to run from, and enough content to keep players invested for quite a few hours. It would likely be effective if it were not coming out at the same time as Resident Evil: Village. It is simple, it is inoffensive, it is more Subnautica…

… And it is a terrible sequel.

Sequels have the role of expanding the universe and themes or their source material, and Subnautica: Below Zero does not do that.

Subnautica: Below Zero review
Unknown Worlds Entertainment /

The Subnautica world is actually quite deep (pun unintended but happily accepted) so any sequel in that universe has a ton of areas to be expansive. The precursors/architects, Alterra, the blue planet, the leviathan class creatures, Kharaa, and much more deserve to be explored.

Do we get that? A little bit, but not much.

We get to learn surface-level details about the Architects. We get to see the same world again, with largely the same fish, just the “artic” version. Sure, we get to learn about two new characters in the world, but one of them was already explored, in-depth, in the original title, and the other one is dead.

You do not learn much more about the planet, you do not learn more about Kharaa, you do not add any wrinkles into the story/timeline. Subnautica sets such an interesting and vast story/world to play in for sequels, and Subnautica: Below Zero just does not use the room they have.

Then there is the lack of thematic development.

The original title had very simple themes: isolation and survival. It was a fairly clear man vs. nature scenario that easily drove the player and provided natural and clear goals. Need oxygen for deeper diving? Build a better oxygen tank. Need to move farther away quicker? Build sea vehicles. Do not want to keep going back and forth to your escape pod? Build a sea base somewhere closer to your objective. Tired of being on this planet? Turn off the giant laser and build a rocket ship.

Subnautica: Below Zero review
Unknown Worlds Entertainment /

How do you develop that? No one is really sure. It is why man vs. nature stories very rarely get sequels.

The reality is that if you wanted to expand on the themes of the base game, you would almost exclusively have to use multiplayer or expand the NPC roster. Subnautica: Below Zero does not do that and therefore fails to expand the themes of the previous game.

Sure, I could come in here and offer you a deep breakdown of the gameplay and how I think it either contributes or takes away from the experience, but Subnautica players have already experienced what the game is like. You are dropped, solo, onto a planet that is almost entirely oceanic, with the express goal of surviving. You gather materials off the ocean floor, like various minerals, helpful flora, and edible fauna, and craft your way through an extremely linear progression system. Use the new equipment and items you craft to venture further, and especially deeper, into the depths of the sea to find more materials and, hopefully, a table scrap of a story element.

The only place where the gameplay is a bit expanded is on the surface, which will comprise of maybe five percent of the player’s whole experience with the game. You actually get a land vehicle, which is helpful, because the land masses are way too big in this game. That, of course, is only helpful, if you did not accidentally stumble upon all of those hidden away caves and labs in your first two hours of playing the game because the game does not provide a map, you were lost, and there is nothing stopping you from accidentally stumbling into end game areas.

Subnautica: Below Zero review
Unknown Worlds Entertainment /

Finding out about the death of a character that is central to the game’s story before finding anything else about that character is kind of a bummer.

The reality is that Subnautica: Below Zero is just more Subnautica, and to a certain extent, that is alright. It is a great gameplay foundation and it takes very little work to make it worth playing again. Whatever score you give Subnautica you should essentially give Subnautica: Below Zero. 

However, as a sequel, Subnautica: Below Zero falls well short of the goals and requirements of great sequels. This is especially disappointing when looking at the great story and thematic framework that the original title laid out.

The result is a game that knows what it is doing but chooses not to properly execute where necessary. This game would be much better as a DLC, not a new title.

6. Subnautica: Below Zero feels like more of Subnautica, and that is only a good thing to a certain extent. Where it falls short by copying its predecessor is in the story and thematic department, making it feel like an uneventful and unimportant step in the series.. Unknown Worlds. . Subnautica: Below Zero

A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.