Below is an unpredictable and unsettling indie from Capybara games over five years in development.
It joins other star-studded indies suddenly dropping in December – Hades, Ashen, and Gris – offering a side-scrolling, dungeon crawler roguelike with an emphasis on survival, merging them masterfully.
This short December window offers some breathing room between the intense AAA Blockbusters of 2018 and the absolutely stacked month of January ahead with the Resident Evil 2 Remake, New Super Mario Brothers U Deluxe and Kingdom Hearts 3 to come.
Where a game like Gris has been able to shine through its expressive and emotive aesthetic, and Ashen has offered a different approach to an open world adventure, Below is making headlines for its focus on death.
I haven’t felt quite so deceived by a game in a long while. During that first run, I thought I was making really good progress, trundling down steep, narrow staircases, venturing deeper into increasingly gloomier caves, expertly fending off legions of red-eyed demons with my spear and bow.
The game hadn’t signposted anything for me up to this point. I taught myself how to equip a torch, cook some food so I could eat to stop myself from starving, and drink to stay hydrated. I was lighting bonfires and even using the collected remains of the creatures to create checkpoints for myself.
True, I wasn’t especially far into the game, but I’d taken the time to explore and get acclimatized to my surroundings. I thought I understood what was required of me. And by the time I’d reached lower levels 2 I’d figured out how things work, and even had some idea what I needed to do, and where I have to go.
The one time I didn’t light my torch. The brief fifteen-second window that I’d allowed myself to wander around blind because I figured I knew the way out led me straight into a spike trap. I’m immediately impaled and bleeding out. My character is done. I even jumped in my chair out through shock. The game got me good and I never saw it coming.
Below knew it was going to catch me sooner rather than later. It knows it has the measure of the player and it’s a question of when, as opposed to if. It knows this because an achievement immediately afterwards, simply named ‘Start’. Two hours of gameplay later and only then do I start to see what Below is really all about.
The game resets and you start right back at the beginning. It acts as if you’ve just got off your ship and stepped foot onto the island for the very first time. No explanation of how that’s possible, no idea whether you’re supposed to be a clone or if you’ve entered some kind of freaky time loop. You could even be a completely different person. It’s a seamless, unexplained transition, and it makes the journey all the more compelling.
You’ll eventually discover that you can locate your dead body and loot yourself – ala Dark Souls – but if you die before you reach that point, that loot will be lost forever. You also learn that the loot you gain from creatures can actually be used to power your lantern to make sure it stays on for longer. You’ll also figure out new item combinations and learn recipes to help you on your journey. While death is permanent in Below, you learn a lot from it, therefore, it becomes an important part of the process.
When death is used as a learning experience in games, it doesn’t make you feel so bad when things don’t always go your way. They can actually reveal new shortcuts and give you an idea of which weapon is most effective in clutch situations. The Dark Souls influence is incredibly clear for all to see and just when you think you’ve got the measure of things, the game swift kicks you in the ass to remind you it’s in control.
Below’s procedurally generated dungeons also mix things up quite a bit. On the one hand, some screens will be familiar and recognizable, basically helping you keep on the right track. But each run will be different and it will often necessitate you retracing your steps to try and find a way forward. You will stumble upon red herrings and dead ends, and often feel confused as to where to go next. Yet you’ll always feel comfortable because you’re aware that this is precisely what’s supposed to happen.
Below will never make it easy for you. It’s never going to put a giant-sized arrow on the screen telling you to head left or right, and meanwhile, you’ll have swarms of enemies gnawing and clawing at you, forcing you to make a quick decision. The game always keeps you on your toes with a constant flow of tension set against the backdrop of a skin-crawling score and a glum, but glorious graphical style.
This game is very self-aware of the pace and tone it’s going for. Below is a confident game that has clear nods and winks to those that have inspired it but also brings them together in a way that feels fresh and unique. For instance, the first time I washed up on the island gave me some real Monkey Island vibes, but Capybara also goes back to their roots with the likes of Sword and Sworcery, and then we have the Dark Souls influence I already mentioned.
2018 has already had some incredible gaming experiences. But with the quality of a game like Below, it’s clearly still got some sights left to show us.
Code kindly provided by the publisher and played on PC.