Finally, an action-roguelike with a unique gameplay focus: getting your enemies to somehow destroy each other, rather than you fighting directly. However, it does come up a bit short in some ways.
Genre: Action, Adventure
Developer: Studio iLLOGIKA
Publisher: Studio iLLOGIKA
Release date: 9 May, 2018
A Nice Surprise
This genre has become rather predictable and formulaic by now. Usually, you just run through a maze consisting of many rooms where you must defeat all the enemies, often by shooting them, in each room before the doors will open to allow you to continue. It’s a concept that works very well, but it’s also been done to death and the actual combat mechanics are usually a bit on the simple side. Thusly, Subaeria comes as a nice surprise, taking this concept and twisting it into a somewhat different shape. This twist makes the game what it is, but with it comes a few problems, as well as a bit of a tough learning curve.
This game sees you playing as Styx, a girl whose family has been murdered by the leader of Subaeria, an underwater dystopian world full of things that want her dead (of course). In her quest for revenge, Styx will have to contend with the Cleaners, automated death bots designed to deal out “justice” to anyone that breaks the rules of this place. Cleaners take many forms, from giant Roombas equipped with rotating death blades, to Dalek-like bots that fire deadly laser blasts at anyone stupid enough to commit the horrible crime of existing in their general vicinity. This rather unpleasant place is also a giant labyrinth of sorts, full of difficult layouts and traps designed to slow you down, while making the work of the Cleaners that much easier. What’s worse, these are very powerful foes. Styx has no way of directly doing any damage to them, which presents a rather obvious problem. But there’s a silver lining here, in that the Cleaners are dumber than stumps, and their internal systems aren’t very well protected. While Styx herself can’t dish out any pain to the killer bots, those bots are certainly strong enough to wreck each other and finding ways to get them to do that creates the core of Subaeria’s unique gameplay.
Of course, actually making that happen isn’t so easy. They’re not just going to roam around beating each other up for fun after all, they’re only interested in murdering you. So you’re going to have to trick them if you want them to destroy themselves. Not only can they destroy each other though, but they can also be obliterated by the many, many traps and defenses laid out in the maze. Lots of ways to blow them up, then, eh? But there’s a catch: There are both blue and yellow Cleaners, and only opposing colors can damage each other (and this pertains to the traps as well, with certain exceptions). With that in play, as well as the variety of enemy types, traps, complicated layouts, and so on, your job is a complex one. Fortunately, you have some help in the form of a floating drone that follows you around. During your travels you will run into items simply called “apps”, which can be installed into the drone, and this brings us to the other part of the game’s main gimmick: The ability to influence the Cleaners in a variety of ways. There’s all sorts of apps. Perhaps you’ll find one that freezes a targeted Cleaner in place, or paints it as a “target” that constantly draws attacks from other nearby foes. Or perhaps you’ll find one that lets you place down a holographic replica of yourself, getting them to attack where you want them to. All sorts of apps exist, and using them to help you get through the situations you’ll find yourself in is a huge part of the fun here.
However, there are a couple of things that will make this difficult. The first one I definitely need to mention is the controls. It’s not that the controls are bad, they aren’t. It’s that there’s a quirk to them in that the drone is actually controlled by the right analog stick (if you’re playing on a controller). This doesn’t sound too bad, as most such games use the right analog for some form of aiming or other thing that you need to constantly contend with, but here you’re almost controlling a separate character with that stick.
When you use an app, there’s typically a specific area of effect around/near the drone where it will do something, so positioning the drone to aim your apps properly is the key here. But trying to control both Styx and the drone at the same time is going to take some getting used to. You don’t have to worry about getting the drone lost somewhere off-screen though, as it can only move so far away from Styx, and when you’re not directly moving it, it will stay in one spot relative to her position. It’s much easier to control than it might sound like, but it definitely makes for a bit of a learning curve. In addition, you can only hold two apps at once. Pick up another, and you’ll have to replace one. This does something that is always important in any game with roguelike elements: It creates interesting and difficult decisions for you to make. Not only are there the apps, but there are other items as well, which are a variety of passive upgrades you can find, so choosing which app to take will have you considering not only the other app you’ll be carrying with it, but your current build/stats as given by whatever passives you’ve picked up. Apps are also of limited use, as each has a set number of charges before it’s gone. Fortunately, you don’t really have to worry too much about running out and not having apps to use. You’ll definitely find more as you explore each section of the game, whether they’re just lying around in the environment, or available for you to purchase in shops. The switching out of apps also keeps things fresh, and forces you to constantly change up your tactics over the course of each run since you can’t just pick a couple of apps and carry them forever.
Now, all of these elements rather make the game seem like more of a puzzling affair than the rest of the genre, and the game’s store page also paints it that way, but I think this is actually a bit misleading. Each room does not just have a “correct” solution that you need to work out. Rather, there are many, many ways to approach each one. Which is good, because you never know just which apps you’ll have access to when you enter one. So you don’t have to worry about getting stuck because you don’t have the required items to beat the room. What’s more, you can actually beat rooms without even using apps. But that brings us to the other reason why the description seems a bit misleading: The fast pace of the game. The idea of this being a “puzzle” game suggests a very slow pacing, but… nope! Your enemies are aggressive, powerful, and tend to be very fast. Screw up, and it wont take them too long to chop you into little bits. While you CAN get through even nasty rooms without apps, you’re really putting yourself at risk by doing that, so the game heavily encourages their use due to just how dangerous your foes are. You do have a dodge roll that can help you avoid attacks, but still, with the speed they have you’re bound to take some hits. It’s also important to use the environment to your advantage. While this game uses an overhead view, you could also call it a platformer, as it is in full 3D and you aren’t restricted to just one plane. You’ll have ramps and platforms and tough jumps to make, which is yet another thing you’ll have to deal with in your quest to battle the bots. It all makes for a bit of a tough learning curve, with you trying to figure out how you can best deal with each situation while at the same time having to deal with constant speedy assaults from any angle in rooms that are often very complicated. Fortunately, none of these rooms ever feel unfair, but the difficulty is still pretty high here. You can expect to die a lot.
And, of course, this type of game is never complete without giant bosses to fight. The bosses are one of the more static elements, in that it will always be the same boss between a given pair of levels, instead of the usual idea of having many bosses for the game to choose from. Boss fights are just as gimmicky as the rest of the game, and will focus on you trying to use other enemies spawned during the fight to somehow deal damage. Boss attacks can be pretty wild, and there’s generally nowhere to hide, so you’ve got your work cut out for you with these guys. Some types of apps also just don’t help against these giant jerks, while others can make a huge difference, so the difficulty of any given boss can jump up and down a bit depending on just what you’ve brought with you. These fights are pretty well designed and generally fun, however the fact that they repeat the exact same very small set of bosses in the exact same order every time might get a bit old after awhile, as it’s the one part of the game that doesn’t have any variation or RNG to it. Even so, they serve their function of capping out the floor nicely, and providing a bit of a break in the game’s usual pacing while never straying from the game’s main gimmick.
Of course, the game is definitely not without it’s flaws, and the ones that are here are fairly significant. The biggest one in my own experience has been the perspective. I gotta say, the game is absolutely gorgeous, and the art style and special effects and whatnot never get in the way of the action… but the camera’s perspective can. As mentioned earlier, this game has a lot of platforming elements, and due to the overhead view, it can sometimes be nearly impossible to see where a raised platform is in relation to the floor around it, causing you to seemingly get stuck on nothing before realizing that hey, there’s something here I need to jump over. This happens the most in the southernmost sections of each room, where the camera is angled down the most. It’s certainly not something that will happen in every single room, and it’s not game-breaking, but it sure is annoying when it happens and is likely to be a source of frustration when it earns you a clobbering from whatever mechanical horror is after you at the time. What’s more, the overall visual confusion that can result from the camera, plus the style and color schemes of certain areas, can easily cause you to lose in ways that can feel very unfair as you struggle trying to even figure out what’s happening in the room. The other downside is the content, in that there’s only so much of it. There just aren’t all that many different apps and other things to find here. Well, not in comparison to other games in the genre anyway. The genre as a whole has sorta trained players to expect there to be hundreds of items and such in a game like this, but that simply isn’t the case here, and bears mentioning. The good thing is that the content that is there is varied and interesting. Each app is different from the next, and each type of Cleaner has a different behavior and attack pattern for you to learn and manipulate. There is decent replay value here, but you wont be getting the crazy number of hours out of this one that you would get out of something like Isaac or Enter the Gungeon. And of course, the difficulty is always worth a mention here. It’s obviously not truly a downside for most players in this genre, who will want and expect some true challenge… but there are always those that go into these not really understanding that the high difficulty, as well as the repetition, are core elements of the genre. If you’re new to this type of game, be warned. It is pretty darned hard, there’s a lot to learn, and you’re going to get murderized quite often, complete with permadeath, the game’s gimmick as well as the drone control can take some getting used to.
The game as a whole, though, is pretty darned fun. It’s very satisfying to use apps in creative ways to take down the evil Cleaners, and this core gimmick never overstays it’s welcome or feels tedious. The vicious, powerful, speedy enemy attacks constantly keep the action high, while forcing you to strategize and make decisions on the fly. It really keeps you thinking in that way, which is good, and certainly a change from the norm of just shooting and dodging and not much else during battle. I honestly think the low-ish amount of content is going to be the biggest sticking point for many players (though it doesn’t personally bother me at all… not every game needs 10000 items and 500 bosses to be fun and have loads of replay value) and could certainly lead to you feeling like there’s a lack of value here. That sure seems to be the case with may other roguelikes and procedural games… they always receive boatloads of complaints if they don’t have absurd amount of content to them. So I do need to consider that in giving this game a rating. But regardless of that, I urge you to check this one out. It is criminally overlooked on Steam, with a whole two Steam reviews at the moment (not unusual these days, with Steam being a flooded, crowded disaster lately), and I’d love to see it get more attention. It is also going to be available on consoles as well, hopefully it’ll garner some more notice there. Do check it out, but just be aware of exactly what you’re getting here.