Subject 13 is a walking simulator with puzzle heavy elements and a basic story premise. The player has to figure out the mystery of the protagonist and uncover what’s truly going on and to solve the mystery behind an abandoned facility. The game has been available on Steam for some time, but now it’s come to the PlayStation 4 thanks to Anuman Interactive (a group that includes the creators of Flashback).
I wish I could’ve loved (or, at least, liked) the game as much as my colleague, but poor controls and questionable mechanics may make me want to hold off on the praise.
Our hero is Franklin Fargo, a physics professor who lost his wife and ever since he’s taken a bitter approach to life. For the purposes of story, he wakes up in an abandoned science facility with no knowledge of how he got there or why he’s even there to begin with. An odd voice that refers to him only as “Subject 13” doesn’t offer promising answers about what happened to the rest of the residents of the facility. Now Frank must figure out the truth of why he’s there and what has truly taken place.
The story is slowly fleshed out with the use of audio files scattered throughout each area. Fully voice acted, these small snippets can range from characters talking about projects they’re working on to just day to day life. Listening to them is optional, but I found it a nice touch to experience the story folding naturally through these audio diaries. This helped to paint a better picture of the people who resided at the facility and encouraged better immersion.
I’ve played walking simulators in the past and for the most part they were good experiences. The lack of real mechanics beyond usually a voice or two usually fell to just enjoying the atmosphere or the story unfolding in front of me. Sadly, Subject 13 fought me on this front from the start and it was frustrating to deal with, partly due to its choice of using fixed-camera angles (think classic Resident Evil games) and poor controls.
The controls, clearly designed for the PC, can be sensitive and finicky at times. Many puzzles require turning objects to view them from different angles in order to open a compartment or to solve a puzzle. This requires interacting with the object in the right way for certain results or secrets to be uncovered. I struggled with a book that required certain panels being unlocked on different sides to gain an access code to open it and being presented with two more minor puzzles before finally gaining access to the objects inside. While I understood what needed to be done, focusing on the key areas needed to uncover the keys for the code proved to be a challenge in itself.
The cursor control isn’t well tuned for a gamepad and half the time feels like it’s sliding across the screen. When trying to focus on a specific area it was difficult to get at certain angles, so I’d be turning an object for at least a few minutes just trying to click on a specific area. This mechanic could have been improved by making it so the object is stationary and focused on one side. The cursor can then come back into play and let the player to click and poke at every inch of the area before turning the object over onto another side to focus on. This change would have been greatly welcomed and made it much easier to interact with objects up close.
Many solutions to puzzles require combining key objects together to further the objective, which can mean repetitive trial and error just trying to make something happen. In one area I had to make a few key things happen using a wheel and a lever. Walking around continually dragging them over certain places to see if there was any reaction was time consuming, but not checking wasn’t an option. The last thing I wanted to do was to skip a step and end up having to go back down the list of areas in the room to test objects on or gaining a reaction by interacting with an object just the right way.
The puzzles range from easy to eerily sophisticated in their design. During the same section I had to roll a few boards up and down to match key colors to unlock a compartment. Other puzzles can involve sliding pictures to match, unscrewing a panel, and at one point even just filling a helmet up with water to bring to another area.
Subject 13’s poor mechanics hinders the fine controls often needed for solving certain puzzles right away and can feel tedious at times. When unscrewing a panel it’s required to actually roll the tool around in a circle to unlock it and then using a lever. Granted, this is picking at fine details but at times it felt like an unnecessary action that just slowed down the progress rather than a real necessity.
Controlling Frank is another issue altogether, especially when attempting to navigate him around certain environments. The fixed-camera makes it difficult to see if there’s any hidden audio files that are scattered throughout each level and whether an object can be interacted with or not. Several times I had Frank getting stuck on corners when turning him into a new area which required wiggling him a bit back and forth to get him unstuck.
My biggest gripe, honestly, is how the stationary camera is unable to focus just on Frank. This makes it even harder to navigate certain areas, especially when coupled with spotty controls. This is frustrating, as he’ll walk offscreen into another area of the environment, often out of the view of the camera entirely. This made no sense. There were a few times I had to essentially guide him back, blindly, with no idea if he was getting stuck on obstacles or if things had glitched out.
Visually, Subject 13 does look nice and I found the facility environments interesting. They’re detailed enough to give a few clues about what happened to the people who resided there before Frank woke up in his capsule. While I felt some areas a little claustrophobic, for the most part this was something I could look past in favor of finer details.
While I did notice the finer details in each level, enjoying them was nearly impossible with these limited points of view. Details felt mostly lost due to this design choice and I would have vastly preferred to have a first-person view instead. Either that or the ability to switch camera angles at the least to get a better sense of each area’s depth and to help make searching for key items easier.
The section design for each puzzle also made little sense. When solving a puzzle, the player is given an up close of view of the particular point in the area, but the point of interest just floats in a completely black abyss. This may have been a design choice to make the player focus on the puzzle and help boost concentration, but to me it broke what little immersion I had managed to build up. There could have at least have been sections of wall and floor added in to flesh out these points of interest and give a sense they were grounded rather than floating in empty space.
Overall, Subject 13 was not an enjoyable experience on my part. Half the time I was frustrated just trying to get Frank to move or fighting the controls to solve a new puzzle. I feel what I’ve been playing is an unfinished product that was pulled out of development way too early and in hindsight should have been planned out better. Certain elements like the stationary camera felt like a poor choice for vantage points. Perhaps the only saving grace I can mention here is that many of the puzzles were quite clever and fun. However, poor controls and mechanics makes it difficult to recommend to those who might otherwise be interested in the genre.