Below Review: Deep, Deep Down
Below, Capy’s long-in-development roguelike, has cultivated a sense of mystery across the course of its entire gestation. The question of what Below is, exactly, doesn’t go away once you’re playing it–the game offers minimal instruction beyond the occasional button prompt, and much of the first few hours is spent figuring out how everything fits together. Your objective is simple enough and spelled out in the game’s title–you’re on an island, and you need to go as deep below the surface as you can. How you do that slowly becomes clear, although reaching any suggestion as to why you make this voyage takes far longer.
Below opens with a long, slow cutscene of a boat arriving on an island, with no context or explanation. It’s a suitable introduction to a game that you’ll want to take at a considered pace; from the beginning, there’s no instruction, although it won’t take you long to find the lantern at the island’s apex and begin your journey through the first floor. From there it’s a matter of exploring each floor of the island’s depths, finding keys to unlock doors that will take you further down, and managing your resources and health as you deal with a series of hardships.
Whenever you die in Below, a different boat will arrive at the island’s shore and you’ll be given a new disposable character to take up the quest with. The distant camera and simple character designs mean there’s not much to differentiate each individual you control: they’re not named or unique in any way, and the game never makes it explicitly clear how or whether they’re connected. You start each life armed with a sword and hunting bow, which can be used to fend off any enemies you encounter, as well as a single refillable bottle of water that’s needed to replenish your character’s thirst meter. From there it’s up to you to gather the resources you’ll need to survive–by defeating enemies, finding chests, and exploring any part of the world that’s sparkling–as you delve deeper into Below’s world.
Early on, Below can feel generous by roguelike standards. You unlock multiple shortcuts as you go, allowing you to jump to a deeper level from the beginning of your next life, so that you don’t need to go all the way back through the whole game every time. Before long you unlock the ability to activate campfires as single-use checkpoints, letting you warp straight back to them with your next character. Resting at campfires will take you into a little room where you can store excess items that your next explorer can collect if need be, although storage space is limited, and if you exit out of the game you’ll start right back in the room you left when you start the game up again.
It takes a while to encounter an enemy that can do real damage too, meaning that instant-kill traps are a much greater danger for the first few levels, conditioning you to take a slow, cautious approach. Each time you respawn, the layout of every floor will have changed slightly, with room positions shifting and your map (which helpfully shows which direction you can exit each room from) having reset. It’s essential that you return to where you last died when you were carrying your lantern, which provides some challenge–you can retrieve resources from any corpses you leave behind, but your lantern is absolutely vital for progress.
For the first seven or so hours, Below hits a good balance between the intrigue of its atmospheric aesthetic and the punishing nature of its mechanics. Unfortunately, the balance shifts in a major way later on, and the game’s increasing difficulty is matched by harshened conditions. While early floors are rich in the essentials, letting you exploit swarms of bats for meat and enemies that drop gems that power your lantern, later floors are more miserly. Gathering resources from chests and defeated enemies is important–there’s a rudimentary crafting system letting you combine them to create weapons and items, but which resources you have access to depends on which floor you’re exploring. It’s not unusual to end up with an inventory full of items that can’t be combined or used for anything.
Once you’re midway through the game, each new restart is going to involve some early grinding, as jumping right to a lower level without the resources needed to keep your character fed, and without retrieving the lantern from where you last died, can turn the game into a disastrous slog. The areas you can use to gather resources need light so that you can avoid the instant-kill traps planted all over them, and although you can craft limited-use torches, that’s not going to do you much good in later stages where the lantern is your main way of fighting back against some of the game’s harsher nasties.
Your mileage may vary depending on your patience, but this isn’t a case where the game’s brutality works in service of its excellent combat and astonishing world. Below’s main thrills come from discovering new things, and when you’re forced to repeat the same sections multiple times, the game’s difficulty feels excessive and unnecessary. Below’s combat is simply not interesting enough to make the tough sections feel worthwhile–the rudimentary dash/shield/attack system has little room for nuance, and when enemies can do extreme damage with a single hit (often with a “bleed” effect that requires you to use resources to patch yourself up), death doesn’t always feel like your fault.
Later floors ask you to play very differently compared to the earlier ones. Suddenly you need to keep moving constantly, and the slow, methodical exploration that made the early parts of the game interesting is lost. The game’s sense of foreboding mystery begins to dissipate as well, as the mechanics reveal themselves to be relatively uncomplicated and the game’s art design relies on some tired tropes and enemy designs. Overall, the art design and Jim Guthrie’s imposing soundtrack are both excellent but become much harder to properly appreciate when you’re suffering through the game’s more tedious sections. Below also feels much better suited to PC–the distant camera and tiny characters had me moving closer to the television while playing on Xbox One.
Below’s extreme demands for patience and tolerance remain right through to the game’s mysterious ending. But despite its assured aesthetic and the initial pleasures of discovery, Below will eventually turn into a slog for all but the most committed of players.
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