You’re going down…
If you cast your mind way back to E3 2013 you might remember the initial announcement of Below. The game instantly generated a lot of excitement, popping up occasionally up until 2016 when it got delayed indefinitely. Then last week Below reemerged – with a release date to boot – and now here we are.
Below, from Capybara Games, is an action-adventure roguelike survival game. Exploration is at its core, the aim being to spelunk further than before using a magic lantern and see what secrets an island holds. The only thing that will stop you is pretty much everything that inhabits the island. You are going to die a lot, but unlike many roguelikes where you’ll be back in the action straight away, everything here is a lot slower and more considered.
Given how long people have waited for Below, the opening shot feels incredibly meta. A lot of roguelikes are fast paced-affairs; you drop in, play for a bit, die, then try again. The cadence of Below is completely different and the beginning of the game embodies this perfectly. The camera slowly descends from the sky, zooming in on a lone vessel sailing towards a desolate island.
Below is full of mystery and intrigue; in fact, just finding the way down below takes some time. This is not a game that holds your hand; hell it barely even points you in the right direction. You can expect to be thoroughly perplexed by much of what you come across – to ease yourself in, it’s well worth checking out the controls before doing anything. I didn’t even realise you could run, initially.
The game is obtuse by design, and finding your way is only part of the puzzle. There are a plethora of things you can craft with the items you find littered around in the various caverns that you’ll make your way through. Figuring out what you are making is mostly a matter of trial and error. You may accidentally create phosphor but figuring out what to use it for can be a little frustrating.
Crafting is essential to your survival, though, so it is well worth messing around with. It turns out that plumbing the depths is hungry work, and you’re going to need to eat. You can nibble on things you pluck out of the ground, or you can cook them up into soups or make other meals. This is how you restore health and is the only way you’ll survive a long expedition. You have to manage more things as your progress; temperature becomes relevant as you find colder areas, and if you aren’t prepared, you’re going to die even more.
The combat is deliberate; it starts with simply having to hammer the attack button and face the right direction. As you go deeper though the combat changes, dodging and movement are integral to your survival – if you can’t snake around some of the faster enemies, you’re going to be slaughtered. Combat is simple but fairly satisfying, though many of the areas will have you doing your best to kite an enemy away in order to improve your chances.
If the enemies don’t swarm you then you’ll probably have your life ended by traps. Because the rooms are dark, covered in fog, and twist and turn like the most energetic of snakes, the traps genuinely feel like they come out of nowhere. The spike traps in the first areas are sure to be one of the first things you get ended by; running around feels useful until you realise you can’t stop in time to avoid them.
Thankfully, you can help your chances by crafting or finding torches. These let you see things that are further away, but also highlight traps with a red outline. You just have to be careful to manage them or you’ll end up inching your way through the rooms with little to no visibility.
When you die, you find yourself back on the same boat you started on. This leads to a trudge back through the same areas as before until you get back to the caves. You also lose the magic lantern essential to your journey. This means you have to make it back to where you were to recover items from your body as well as pick the lantern up again. The first few times this is fine; after a while, though, it starts to feel like a punishment. It makes trying again feel like a chore, not a challenge.
Recent games have perhaps spoiled us by getting us straight back in the action, but the time it takes just to get back to the starting point feels longer each time. Part of this can at least be offset by shortcuts you can unlock and the ability to warp to checkpoints if you power them up.
Below looks absolutely striking; the way light moves around the world is entrancing. The different weather effects are beautiful as well, with thunderstorms being a particular highlight. The audio is just as brilliant, building up as you delve deeper into the world into a truly wonderful piece of music.
Below has simple but satisfying combat, is easy on the eyes and ears, and the crafting system is fun once you get to grips with it. The trouble is, unlike other recent roguelike games, it doesn’t value fun above frustration and actively punishes you for slip-ups. Despite this, it’s a compelling experience, just not necessarily a fun one. Below is not for everyone, but for those who crave this kind of punishment it’s sure to scratch that itch.
[Reviewed on PC]