Below, by Capybara Games, is a lonely and dangerous journey into the depths of an island’s cave system.
Starting out on a boat sailing to a remote island, you gently rest your vessel upon the shores of its beach, where you are met with waves, gently lapping as they crest upon the shoreline. As you dismount from your ship, you quickly realize that the game is all about discovery — you are left alone to your devices, including figuring out the controls and what everything within your inventory does. A couple of swings of your sword and random misfires from your bow, and you are off to find a path in order to descend below.
Below prides itself in having this sense of being lost, both through the lack of the tutorial and through gameplay. It’s certainly presented as an adventure game, but most of that is contributed distinctly to not having any clue as to what is going on and having to venture out into the unknown. You stumble upon a lantern as you begin to explore, that illuminates a small area of the dark landscape. As you make your way into the opening in the top of the island’s rocky outcropping and begin to descend to its underground labyrinths, you will quickly find that you have your work cut out for you.
Certainly the biggest challenge in Below is the survival aspects nestled within the core gameplay. There are sprouts of mushrooms here and an occasional fish in a pond there, but food is provided very sparingly, almost exclusively outside of the caves. You can eat these raw, but it actually benefits you to find a campfire and use your provided water jug to help cook the ingredients into various elixirs and soups. You will find that there are several different recipes, and its up to you to discover the combinations that create them. If you don’t feed yourself or drink water regularly then the hunger or thirst will drain your health to nothing and you’ll die. Another randomly-generated hero will sail up to the island and your journey will continue in your previously trodden footsteps.
Death is a common occurrence in Below, as the survival aspects and the hard-hitting enemies lend themselves to quite a challenge. If you die, and you likely will, you must find your corpse in order to recover your precious lantern and equipment. Recovering your corpse can sometimes be a challenge in and of itself, depending on how deep you were before you kicked the bucket, and it may take you quite some time to get back. Shortcuts can be found within the caves, such as elevators and alternate pathways, which help, but losing a bunch of progress is a real threat.
While delving down you will encounter many dangers, such as spike traps that instantly kill you and red-lit enemies that resemble various forms. Fog blankets each of the procedurally generated rooms and lifts as you shine the lantern, or one of your crafted torches, upon it or even peels back as you walk through it, giving you a visual indication of direction as to where you’ve explored so far. This helps a bit when exploring, but it is ultimately a pretty claustrophobic experience — you mostly don’t know what lies below the fog until you arrive there. Conveniently, you cannot fall off ledges, but you have enough to worry about otherwise.
Progress is provided both by going deeper and getting better items. As you defeat enemies, you will find that they drop white, shiny light gems. You can use these gems to ‘unlock’ a campfire, turning the fire blue, and allowing you to fast travel to it later, even after death. This takes a bit away from the sting of permadeath, as you can use it — if you plan accordingly — to go right back to the relative area you were in before you died. Treasure chests are placed in strategic locations and contain batches of items that can help you quickly recover some craftable items as they reset on every death. It’s things like these that make the difficulty of the game more manageable and keeps you coming back for more.
The art in Below is a bit different than most games. Instead of putting the camera right in the character’s face, it takes a more relaxed role — zoomed out, far enough to showcase each location’s large area. This allows the fog to play a stronger role and ultimately gives you a true sense of scale in relation to the size of your character on the screen. As the camera is zoomed out, the art can get away with blockier models and forms, but some of the details such as sliceable grass on the overworld, and little creatures that mill about, help showcase the hidden beauty of the world. Emotional orchestrated music fuels each journey underground and makes it feel that much more dangerous as a result of it.
Below is such an interesting title that it feels hard to recommend to most people. Fans of games such as Dark Souls and Bloodborne will likely dig the challenge, but otherwise, it seems like an unnecessarily challenging survival game. Check it out if you are looking for a new roguelike to play or just want to experience a unique adventure game six years in the making.