Studio FOW’s Subverse has gone into Steam Early Access, allowing the world to take a hands-on look at what’s coming in the final release.
Subverse is a story-driven sci-fi game being developed by Studio FOW Interactive. Known for their high-quality productions of adult parody movies based on popular media franchises, the team has since decided to branch out into adult game development. Funds for the game's production were collected through a Kickstarter campaign, with backers providing well over two million dollars in pledges. All stretch goals were met, development began, and — after one Covid-related delay — Subverse has recently been made available on Steam Early Access.
Set in the far-away Prodigium Galaxy, Subverse is a high-stakes space opera that sees the player band up with a harem of dangerous heroines to overthrow the prude and genocidal Imperium. The game features action-packed shoot ’em up segments, intermixed with fully-voiced visual novel sequences, and turn-based, tactical combat, boldly inviting disparate types of players to unite under the common goal of corrupting an entire galaxy.
In Subverse, you assume the role of Captain of the Mary Celeste, a military-grade ship equipped with masking technology. Despite possessing such a large and powerful vessel, the Captain spends his days smuggling drugs and hunting down pirates; an imposed lifestyle after the destruction of his homeworld. Humans arrived in the Prodigium Galaxy on a pair of prison transport ships, which fell into a black hole. Realizing that the people aboard were criminals, the Imperium decided to banish humans to a dumpster planet. Not one to give in easily, humans used the scrap that littered their planet to create a massive capital of depravity, known as Nü Vegas.
The Imperium that rules over Prodigium Galaxy is guided by a collection of religious beliefs named the Veil. These beliefs severely outlaw any kind of needless carnal pleasure or use of drugs, believing that such things cause people to become lazy. Living under laws adhering to those beliefs, the populace of Prodigium was highly sexually repressed, but Nü Vegas offered an escape from these laws, being a den of gambling, drugs, and interspecies sexual orgies. As such, people flocked to it, and the garbage planet quickly amassed enough funds to raise an army and pose a potential threat to the Imperium and its values. Naturally, the Imperium responded by destroying the city and nearly geocoding the human populace.
As it turns out, this was neither the first nor the last time that the Imperium nearly eradicated a species for its transgressions towards the Veil. Their draconian rule led to the populace doubting the Veil, prompting terrorist organizations to rise with plans to abolish the empire. The Captain is invited to join one such group, due to his hatred of the Imperium, a history of military exploits, and most importantly, the powerful military equipment in his possession. Given the opportunity to wage guerrilla warfare against the prudes who ruined his homeworld with a harem of badass women at his side, the protagonist gleefully accepts this invitation.
To aid him in his quest, the crass and upbeat Captain is introduced to a nymphomaniac bioengineer named Lily, whose expertise led her to manufacture biological superweapons called Mantics. The team’s plan is to use her research to create an artificial army that can challenge the Imperium, but in order to do so, the team will require skilled generals and various additional specialists. As such, the Captain invites aboard Dallick, an alien, engineering prodigy, and absolute stoner, and embarks on an adventure to persuade a demonic-looking pirate queen to join his side.
Every character in the main cast so far is joyous, crass, and more than interested in sex; however, they each harbor personal motivations behind their actions and ways of life, all of which stem from the history of Prodigium as a whole, which quickly becomes the focal point of Subverse. The game accentuates this by often leaving the Captain’s perspective to show to the player events from all corners of the galaxy, which aids the game in constructing a potentially thrilling political intrigue. All this on top of the game being a phenomenally crass comedy, with constant use of immature humor and the occasional satire of real-world events and personalities.
It's a story the player experiences through fully-voiced visual novel segments and frequent 3D cutscenes. The vocal performances are stellar across the entire cast, and the cutscenes do a fantastic job at introducing the world, building tension, and breaking up the pacing of the constant narration. The way these visual novel segments are presented could use some work though, since the lack of lip movement makes the 3D character models appear robotic.
Obviously, no empire is overthrown with snappy quips alone, and the Captain will have to get his hands dirty. As mentioned before, there are two main game modes present in Subverse: shoot ’em up dogfights and turn-based tactics combat encounters. Between the two, the shoot ‘em up a portion of the game is arguably more polished, though that could also stem from the inherent simplicity of the genre itself.
Aside from the Mary Celeste, the Captain has access to the F3N1X, an experimental fighter ship equipped with regenerative shields, an automatic laser cannon, and various secondary weapons. Which of the secondary weapons you have access to depends on your chosen co-pilot, with three different fire modes available at the moment: one for each heroine, and one for when the Captain flies solo.
This portion of the game is nothing else if not pretty. The constant laser show is engaging, the music keeps you excited, and the breaks between enemy waves are just short enough to keep you in the zone. A lot of the heavy lifting is done by the ship’s smooth controls and the large variety of enemies, with a double dose of excitement during the occasional boss fights in main story missions.
This isn't to say that this mode is perfect, and I have hope that it'll see more development aside from the addition of extra missions. There's a sense of visual repetition in these sections since every stage featured in the game so far takes place in a section of space filled with meteorites. More importantly, though, the progression system for upgrading the F3N1X is handled in a lazy, uninteresting fashion.
All upgrades for the F3N1X consist of flat, passive improvements, such as a couple of percentages of extra shields or firepower. These upgrades come in linear paths, and while only the first tier of upgrades is available right now, the current UI suggests that this system won’t see many changes in the future. Even my favorite shoot ‘em ups from 1995 offered more interesting customization and progression systems, and I really hope we’ll see more than just a selection of secondary fire options in the final version of Subverse. Though with that in mind, the game has a much larger problem to solve before its full release: ground combat.
If a matter can't be solved by blasting things from the stars above, Mary Celeste's team will send one of its generals and a handful of the mutated Mantics to get the job done in person. These segments of the game take on a turn-based approach, with the player controlling one of the playable heroines and up to three of the unlocked mutants in a randomly generated, grid-based arena. I won’t lie: this part of the game is clearly undercooked, suffering from questionable design decisions, lack of depth, and a lack of polish.
Each fight begins with you choosing your units before you even get to see the board you’ll be placing them on. On one occasion, this led to me spawning in with the majority melee units on a map that gave me no direct access to the enemy, forcing me to restart the level. This happened only once since I soon realized that since I can’t tell who I’m going to be up against, I'd have to keep my squad as generalized as possible. Not long after, I had one setup that worked for me, with nothing in the game offering any reasons to ever reconsider my squad composition. Sadly, things didn't get any better during the game proper.
Firstly, the units aren’t very interesting to control. The Mantics have one attack skill and the ability to move or defend, while the heroines get one extra support ability on top of that. As your units attack and defend, they'll charge their powerful, ultimate skill, with the heroines getting to choose from two such skills. Due to the lack of depth in your available options, you don’t really have to make any decisions or even think for that matter, making the combat encounters dull. Moreover, the information in the ability descriptions usually isn't clear enough about the abilities' actual properties, so aside from watching the enemy health bar and guessing, you can’t tell how much damage your attacks will actually do. The only form of excitement the game can offer at this point is randomly killing one of your units through RNG.
So far, each ground battle takes the form of survival missions, where, every few turns, a new wave of enemies will spawn in. You know when it will happen, but can’t tell where exactly the enemies will appear. Frequently, my units would end up surrounded by randomly appearing enemies, sometimes dying outright, depending on who got to move first. This never cost me a mission, seeing as there are only one-star difficulty levels available in the game at this time; however, if the difficulty ramps up in the future, this quirk of the game's design could easily become frustrating to deal with.
The tactical battles suffer from the same customization issues as the shoot ‘em up part of the game. As you use the different units, they'll level up, gaining a passive stat increase or, in some rare instances, a new ultimate ability. So far, I haven’t seen any option to change equipment or purchase bonuses for the heroines or the Mantics, though you can unlock a new mantic strain, giving you more choices in terms of your team’s composition.
The presentation in the ground combat is also lacking, especially when compared to the rest of the game. The battle screen always looks muddy or foggy, the fixed camera perspective has no real purpose, and it’s impossible to get a good look at the units from this distance. Character animations are also a mixed bag, but I will praise the sound design, especially when it comes to Fuckbot’s crazy screams.
I’ve been harsh on this game mode, but I still believe it holds potential. Provided its kinks get ironed out and that your units gain more depth, it could become more of an engaging part of the game. As it currently stands, the experience with on-foot combat varies from boring to unpleasant and features an upgrade system not impressive enough to advertise as a selling point on the store page.
Completing the missions doesn’t just progress the story, but also grants access to the one thing that gotten everybody’s attention: the adult content. In the case of Subverse, the player is awarded points that can be spent on unlocking erotic scenes for each of the heroines. The game allows you to arrange up to five of them into a sequence to create something that is (I think) meant to resemble your own personally made movie.
Since the game was made by a studio known for their adult parody films, a system such as this one is understandable, but it doesn’t serve much purpose in its current incarnation. The arranged scenes appear in a menu that you can choose them from, but don’t feature an autoplay feature or any sort of transition between them. Ultimately, you’re only crafting an extra menu to click through before you get to see the action.
The selection of fetishes is currently limited to solo scenes, scenes with the captain, and scenes of sex with the monstrous Mantics, all of which are consensual and reasonably vanilla, barring the shape of the monsters themselves. The game’s art style utilizes highly detailed character models and textures, making the scenes satisfactory to look at.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the scenes, and the unlock system gives you the freedom to skip things you don’t particularly fancy; however, the game is noticeably less erotic than its contemporaries, due to how strongly separated the erotic content is from the rest of the game. There are occasional attempts to include eroticism in the moment-to-moment gameplay, mainly through the design of one enemy faction, but these attempts barely registered as anything truly substantial.
In its current state, Subverse is a great comedy with a promise of a deep political intrigue. While Subverse's action gameplay is engaging, the same can't be said for the turn-based, strategy portion of its gameplay. Moreover, it also features some underdeveloped systems and does little to merge its erotic elements with the gameplay. Going by the six hours it took me to finish the early access build, Subverse may not have much to offer right now, but it should be a more worthwhile pick once its development is completed. Whether it turns out to be just okay or one of my all-time favorites remains to be seen, but the potential is there, and I'd be eager to take another look in the future.
Subverse is currently available on Steam Early Access for $29.99.
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