Review – Subway Midnight (Switch)
Art is a weird and wild frontier to approach from a critical standpoint, especially with video games as art. Traditionally, you have to put aside a certain amount of begrudging respect for an art piece even if you don’t understand it, owing to the concept that art isn’t for everyone and a painting/sculpture/living installment might not resonate with you. The same is true for games: I know people who positively hate Baobab’s Mausoleum, but I will stand by that incredibly offbeat, bizarre trilogy till my dying day. It’s why AAA titles sometimes fall so flat, since they’re trying to please everyone and end up pleasing no one.
So I had to keep that in mind as I booted up Subway Midnight, a strange title from the aptly named Bubby Darkstar about…a subway? I understand that one of the great joys of internet culture now is to take a seemingly surface level game and then wildly speculate and deconstruct the hidden lore behind a series of jumpscares. Go on, do your thing, it’s not for me but very few things are. Anyways, you play this character who is on a subway train. The train is weird as hell, incredibly long and seems to have some kind of inter dimensional setup because you just keep shifting between worlds and realities. Each segment of the train has a ghost…boss of sorts. You don’t fight them, but you need to do something in order to get past them, even if that thing is ignore them.
There’s something uncomfortable about Subway Midnight, and that’s obviously intentional and deliberate. As a 2D character moving in a 3D world, your sense of perception and perspective constantly shifts, leaving you in spots that forces the player to experience the game as Bubby intended. There’s no dialogue, no text bubbles, just vague hints throughout as you move forward and continually solve puzzles of differing natures. Sometimes you’ve got it easy and you just need to push buttons in the correct order. Sometimes you’ve got to work out how to manipulate a series of rainbow portraits while actively dodging around invisible barriers. And sometimes you want to throw your whole Switch in the trash because you’re now playing a game within a game and it’s frustrating, ugly and unnecessarily obtuse.
For someone coming blindly into the game, the setup and the first few interactions/executions of levels feels decent. I got over the walking speed pretty quickly and was able to appreciate the high strangeness of the design. I actually really enjoy the fact that some interactions can be avoided entirely, though I also was put off realizing that you would have to restart from the beginning if you miss something crucial.
For example, one of the “ghost bosses” is collecting paint, and you need to grab a can of paint from each of several rooms in order to “win,” though not winning still means you can advance. The singular MacGuffin that needs to be gotten or all hope is lost is an old trope in video games, and it’s not really one that I enjoy particularly. Yes, I know it levels the playing field too much by allowing players multiple do-overs and such, but the mechanics make Subway Midnight quite unforgiving.
The aesthetic, from top to bottom, is spectacular, and any issues I have with the game as a game are tempered by Subway Midnight’s impressive array of train cars. There are so many variants as to what the game can bring – monochrome rooms, empty deserts, someone’s haunted living room, Cubist art – that I was consistently marveling at what I had to see.
The sound design, a wonderful tandem element, also allowed me to continually be shocked by the purposeful dissonance and grating sound cues meant to unnerve and occasionally shock you. I use shock because nothing about the game is inherently scary: you might get taken by a couple of cheap jump moments, but the fine line between serious and absurd is staunchly blurred, so I never had a reason to panic or worry. In the pantheon of how this game might get you, this is way more Five Night’s at Freddie’s and far less Silent Hill.
However, it’s ultimately the ugly, janky execution that detracted from my enjoyment overall. Subway Midnight’s decision to be both 2D and also to have fixed cameras resulted in tons of awkward movements and missteps that fully took me out of the moment. When laser turrets exist in the third dimension and you’re trying to move your Flat Stanley-ass around them you’re going to get killed, rather cheaply, multiple times. When it dawns on you that you need that paint can you passed, it’s suddenly glaringly apparent the lack of a player-controlled save system means automatically needing to decide if you’re resetting now or finishing your play through and then figuring out if you dare try it again just because an orange paint can was a little precariously placed in one stage.
Additionally, there are puzzles and rooms which exist solely to be vague in target and result in multiple deaths. I respect the decision to not have dialogue or exposition as to the how or the why, but it doesn’t come across as something organic: it feels deliberate in setting the player up for failure. In comparison to, say, an action game with a stronger boss, it telegraphs less as “learn from your mistakes and grow” and instead is “lol you died.” This could be the part where the game appeals more to streamers, but, as someone playing on their lonesome, I just got more irritated until I had to put it down and play something else because my emotions were getting the better of me.
It’s confusing and aggravating, because I instinctively didn’t like Subway Midnight until I saw the more artistic side of it all. Then, when I started to indulge my more Bohemian vantage, the game pulled the rug out from under me by forcing me through a more “game” moment, and then the entire affair showed its cracks because it doesn’t actually perform well as an interactive piece. Some of the best moments are when you can barely do anything, like simply walking forward and having the camera take you in a slow pan. Without spoiling anything, there’s a moment where you’re simply forced to sit and watch a sort of stage show that is both silly and somehow deeply unsettling. It really presented, almost boastfully, what I liked about the game: the moments where it wasn’t, actually, a game.
When all is said and done, I have to ask myself if I would recommend it to other people. It doesn’t seem like a good streaming title, it’s confusing on purpose, and, when I’m not playing it (and even when I am), I sometimes wish I was playing something else. Yet Subway Midnight is wholly unique, entrancing, and never failed to surprise me. It wasn’t always clear what should be done, it wasn’t always easy, but it did always manage to be unerringly true to itself. Like skydiving or another extreme activity, I would cautiously tell the right people to give it a try and find so much that, honestly, is like nothing else. Are you the right people? You may just need to buy a train ticket and find out.
There’s no disputing the fantastical world of Subway Midnight and the veritable bonanza of different worlds and stages. The design is spectacular and it’s worth the journey just to see all the places you visit.
In some instances, the simplistic approach is satisfying and helps deliver the intended experience of the developer. Other times, you’re left wanting to do literally anything else and trying to jerk your controller angrily at the lack of interface.
Some really good ambient moments and appropriate sound drops mixed in with almost painful discord in order to be “spooky.” There are times, like the eyeball puzzle, where the sounds actually made me feel ill.
Fun Factor: 3.0
It’s just too inconsistent. I was never sure what I would get in the next train car, and the trepidation kept me from ever fully enjoying myself.
Final Verdict: 5.0
Subway Midnight is available now on Nintendo Switch and Steam.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Subway Midnight was provided by the publisher.