Early Access Investigations: Subaeria

Picture for a moment the collision between Jet Set Radio and Bioshock's Rapture. The improbable forms a curious amalgam; a contrast of insouciant nonchalance neighbouring death-delivering fascist droids at the bottom of the sea. Ravers and robotica.

And you. 

Subaeria is delightfully odd. My dismal description does more to strip the threading of what makes this game such a curiosity, but the world is genuinely unique. It's a series of inter-connected nodes on the sea floor, each of which serves as a physics-based or mechanical puzzle to solve -- destroying the clutch of drones within -- or as friendly hubs to service the story. Getting from A to B involves traversing the grid and surviving each lock-down encounter, besting bots to advance with minimal damage. It's another one of those ever-popular rogue-lites, brandishing the rod against the careless with clockwork malice. If you liked Binding of Isaac, you'd do well to roll with Subaeria.

What makes Subaeria different is the interesting coupling of mechanics and control method. The game does require a dual-stick controller; the left to control one of four characters and the right to control their modifiable drone. Player characters move with a slightly stodgy acceleration, not especially lithe but easily acclimatised to, given the locked three-quarter viewpoint. Jumping up and across stacked greeble is relatively straight-forward, though it's not especially nimble. The perspective doesn't always agree with level furnishing, with movement and distance sometimes obscured.

The real highlight is when the short-range player drones come in. Left alone, they'll simply hover close to the player character. However, thumbing the right stick gives a proximal freedom to loose the drone in 360 degrees. The drone can be equipped with modules found during a player's run, such as enemy control, enemy colour switching, circuit scrambling and a host of other abilities. Each drone can be equipped with two items, deployed via either trigger.

Enemies vary in their autonomy, but in their most passive state, run in predetermined routes and rotations in each room. Some fire laser batteries that shunts them backwards, others sprout ripsaw teeth and Langolier their way towards the player, spinning through boxes and any other destructible item in the room. The rooms themselves are laden with sparking laser fences and automated defenses; some static, others mobile. Certain areas might have footplates that trigger laser fences to shift colour, causing bots of different colours to come to grief in their electric embrace. Automated defenses don't discriminate, either. If a bot is between you and a turret opening fire, chances are the droid will take the bullet. There are no friends beneath the waves. 

The layered combat springs from this curious cocktail. Quick-thinking and cunning to herd cyclonic blades into fellow patrols, scurrying across circuit arrays to shift lasers from one shade to another, pushing conveniently-placed explosive parcels into the path of enemies or simply having your drone deploy an item atop and watching the outcome, there's a lot of puzzle-platformer finesse in Subaeria. 

I do delight in this debut effort from Illogika, and while I'd to have a higher degree of springy fidelity to my player characters, there's a lot to enjoy in the dynamic of controlling both character and electronic gopher. Beyond the depth of gameplay, the curious world the developers have ushered is one of quiet spellbinding; hints of Beyond Good & Evil, of the aforementioned Jet Set Radio, of something you'd see in much more primitive, hidden form on 32bit consoles. And, to Illogika's credit, they're humble enough to keep the exposition optional for players who just want to keep rolling through the hallways and breaking bots. 

Subaeria is not an unequivocal recommendation, but it's novel and competent enough to warrant the minimal asking price by pundits seeking something a little different. Positively playable, content-rich and delightful production values gets the nod.