Sometimes less is more. Below is a minimalist masterpiece, offering such a realized sense of mystery and intrigue that you’ll spend hours learning the secrets of its beautiful world. It is certain to delight new audiences on the PS4.
There is an infinite beauty to games that challenge you to understand them. If players are offered very little in terms of tutorial or story, then discovering how to play a game can be part of the joy of experiencing it. Some of the most iconic and revelatory games in the first generation home consoles understood this idea. I was never given a five-minute backstory to understand the history of the Robotnik regime; I just pressed forward or jump and and learned how to be Sonic the Hedgehog. Even the first level of the Super Mario Bros. was designed to get me to understand that jump was good and mushrooms = growth without having to rely on exposition. These games simply showed you experiences without telling you about them. Below is this type of game.
Indie studio Capybara Games‘s newest odyssey starts with perhaps the most artistic and iconic opening I’ve ever seen in a game. At first, you see a shot of the cosmos — a sky filled with stars. As the music swells and the camera moves, however, you become aware of the fact that you’re staring at the ocean’s reflection of night, and sailing atop the vast waves is a tiny boat carrying your protagonist towards an unknown island. It’s absolutely brilliant, and if you can think of a better metaphor for the vast uncertainty presented by exploration games, I’ll eat my PS4 controller.
Nothing is explained to you upon your arrival to a dark, abandoned island. The gameplay is a top-down view of your character, a tiny hero holding a sword and shield. By clicking a few buttons, you can pull up a crafting menu and take a stock of your inventory. Eventually, it becomes clear that you can light campfires and cobble together band-aids and torches using items littered around the island.
Eventually, your character finds a mystical lantern, powered by shining orbs that are dropped in the world. This lantern becomes critical as you start exploring the caves situated on the island, which encourages you to go farther and farther below ground.
Light becomes critical as you descend, and a massive part of gameplay is lighting your way to avoid anything that might kill you in the dark. In addition to the light mechanics and crafting, there’s also a simple but effective sword and shield combat that is easy to master. Combat will certainly come in handy for the enemies you meet along the way — dark phantasms that seem to be made of the orbs you need to power your lantern.
You also need to worry about the frost, hunger, and water meters that constant deplete.
This requires you to maintain your character by eating cave animals and drinking water found in little pools on the ground. All in all, with the need for constant light and staving off impending hunger and thirst, Below’s focus is also on maintaining your character.
Which makes permadeath all the more devastating. One bad sword fight or flipping a trap can prove fatal, and if that happens, another little warrior ends up arriving on the island in a boat, one that you use to resume playing and exploring. There’s a roguelike mechanic in this game where, if you can make it back to your previous character’s body, then you can acquire your former inventory. If you’ve traversed far into the game though, you will find this can be an unmercifully difficult task. That challenge may prove to be too much for some casual players. If so, the new Explore Mode of the game is more forgiving.
Some of the routine of feeding yourself, picking up your seventeenth stick you’ll use to make a torch, and swatting at yet another orb monster feels a little repetitive, especially as you start to really descend into the lower levels of caves in the island, but it’s hard to fault a game that focuses on the monotony of survival. If you were stuck in a dark cave, you’d probably be trying to craft a ton of torches too.
The repetition is barely noticeable, however, since you’ll be so engrossed in the experience. Below is an absolutely beautiful game. The diverse, ambient cave settings are filled with magic doors and glyph adorned walls that sing with mystery, and the barrenness of the island really instills you with a sense of wonder. This is also, easily, the best sounding indie game I’ve ever played. Canadian singer-songwriter Jim Guthrie crafted a soundtrack with dominating instrumentals that add to the myth and majesty in Below.
It’s such an intriguing premise to be dropped on a deserted island knowing nothing about the characters you play and what their purpose is, or why magical cave drawings dominate the inner depths of the island you’re exploring. Something has occurred below, and it will require careful hours for you to fully figure out. That sense of mystery, combined with the minimalism of the game’s design and the understated soundtrack results in what I truly feel is a tonally perfect experience.
“Why” will be the driving question that will have you playing the game all the way until its ending. If you can accept the quiet presence of Below and can be motivated by simply exploring its experience, then prepare to be amazed.
Below is now available on PS4, Xbox One and PC.