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July 2019


Platform(s): PC, Xbox One
Genre: RPG/Strategy
Developer: Capybara Games
Release Date: Dec. 14, 2018


PC Review - 'Below'

by Cody Medellin on April 4, 2019 @ 1:30 a.m. PDT

Below is an adventure game with a top-down perspective that provides a slightly different take on roguelikes.

Below was first introduced during Microsoft's E3 2013 conference, which was also the first for the Xbox One. At the time, all anyone got was a teaser of a small figure going into a cave and nothing more. This continued on for a few years until the studio went dark, refusing to show any more than what little they publicly displayed and leaving everyone with more questions than answers about the game. After five years, the game is finally out, and depending on what kind of player you are and what your expectations were, Below is either a breath of fresh air or a long-gestating disappointment.

Much like the trailers did all those years ago, the story is present but nonexistent. The game starts off with what looks like a starscape, and a slow camera zoom shows that you're looking at the vastness of the ocean. The slow zoom continues past the cover of clouds to reveal a boat drifting in the sea and eventually landing on a small island. When your nameless character finally jumps out, you find him or her armed with a limited number of arrows, a bow, and a sword and a shield. Further investigation reveals a campfire with a torch and a lantern, and after exploring the island for a bit longer, you come across a cave. Shining your lantern inside the cave helps to open a large door very slowly, and without any real prompting, you're compelled to go inside and start exploring.

Aside from the lack of a clear narrative or voice for the character, one of the things you'll notice is the lack of a tutorial or instructions. With mini-tutorials becoming a standard thing for games nowadays, it's surprising and a bit refreshing to see a title that is perfectly content to let the player figure out things on their own. It's up to you to figure out how to attack, craft things, open your inventory, and change weapons. The game helps you out by giving you a button prompt to light fires at the appropriate places, but objects that can be picked up or otherwise interacted with are given iconography instead. In short, expect to do and interpret everything, and the game doesn't want to do much to help you get acclimated.

After you've figured out some of the basic mechanics, you'll find that Below is a game that is rooted in several different yet familiar disciplines. The natural theme of spelunking means that the title relishes in exploration, and it gives you a lot of interesting things to see in your journey. Dark caves with clean-cut rocks and grand waterfalls can sometimes lead to ship graveyards. Shrines and underground cities make way for more technologically advanced surroundings. Aside from the unique biomes, the game hides away plenty of alternate paths to new rooms and secret caverns that hide chests with useful items. The use of both hand-crafted levels and procedurally generated ones makes each run feel new, furthering your curiosity in the process.

With exploration comes combat, and it is this part that brings up comparisons with the Dark Souls series. Combat is more methodical, so while mindlessly slashing away at lower-tier enemies may work, it becomes an easy way to get killed once you encounter formidable foes. The preferred method of combat is an attack-and-run pattern, with a good amount of shield-blocking thrown in for good measure. Unlike the Souls series, however, stamina doesn't factor into things, so you're never caught with an opening on the enemy and no way to unleash an attack because you're tired.

The paced combat system and the enticement of exploration fit well within the game's roguelike tendencies, which are tweaked to make things a touch more difficult than expected. Death naturally takes you back to the beginning of the game, and all of your items are gone. The only way to get everything back is to find your corpse or hope that you stored everything in a pocket dimension for retrieval before your last death. You can spend a considerable amount of the fuel for your lantern on a fireplace to turn it into a one-way warp gate, but there's great risk in that since it can only be used once. It's a waste if you don't reach another fireplace to transform it into a warp gate before your next death.

If the influences stopped there, then Below would be an exciting attempt at a genre that has become more commonplace in recent years. However, the developers also decided to add a survival element to the game. At first, the survival elements seem rather light. When you go into the deepest levels of the cave, there are only three meters to take care of: hunger, thirst and warmth. Food doesn't rot, and you aren't susceptible to diseases if you eat something raw. However, you'll discover that everything you eat and drink never fully satisfies the meters, and they can drain rather quickly. Thus, a good amount of your time is spent foraging for food and drink and stopping quite often to consume it before your health slowly drains away.

For many, this is where Below falls apart, as the mashing together of roguelike elements and survival elements doesn't work in this regard. Exploration is actively discouraged, since your hunger meter drains rapidly, forcing you to worry about eating more and reaching a good spot rather than trying to find interesting areas. Food seems more harvestable in the cave's upper levels, while the lower levels seem to have a scarcity of monsters with harvestable meat. The random nature of the levels and the items within mean that there's no guarantee you'll have enough to reach your last corpse, let alone make a sliver of progress. You can tell that the game wants you to take things slowly, but it forces you to do this in such a way that is more discouraging than encouraging.

No matter how you feel about the gameplay and pacing, you will find the game to be mesmerizing in a melancholy sort of way. The soundtrack by Jim Guthrie is especially good at this, as it only plays sporadically and lets the silence and sound effects create the ambiance. The music kicks in when you reach outdoor areas or something interesting, and the tunes are morose but fascinating. It evokes a sense of dread with brief hints of hope, and it's an impetus to continue even if you know you'll die the moment the music ends.

Graphically, that grim prettiness comes through in a somewhat unusual way. Namely, the camera is pulled so far back that your character is absolutely tiny. It is only through a constant white glowing light speck, along with similar red specks for enemies, that you can find anyone. Your diminutive size may make you want to play this on a monitor instead of a TV, but it does a good job of conveying the vastness of the world. The use of fog in some areas and a blur filter for any place your character doesn't occupy is a nice touch at emphasizing that you're a tiny part of the world. The darkness is choking to behold, while the bright lights from the lanterns and campfires reveal swaying grass and waterfalls that look neat among the simple-looking caves. As you would expect, Below runs at a solid frame rate, and it takes very little hardware wise to push the game to very high resolutions.

Below is divisive. Few will argue about the bleak beauty of the game, but everything else sets it up as a title you'll either love or hate, with few reservations. From the lack of instructions to the slow pace and the combat and survival mechanics, there are things that seem to conflict with one another but work fine at the same time. It is a game that asks you to stick with it for a while, and you'll be rewarded with an atmosphere that allows you to interpret things your way. Given some of the game's shortcomings, not everyone will have the commitment to playing until they encounter that "Eureka!" moment. As such, Below gets a cautious recommendation if you weren't already sold on the idea.

Score: 6.5/10

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