There’s nothing wrong with challenge. In recent years, there’s been an upsurgence of titles that cater to an audience sick of a lack of challenge in their games. These types of games are great ways for a player to really test their boundaries and try and strive towards a sense of accomplishment. It’s always a delicate balance between difficulty and fairness though. For every mistake that a player makes, there should be a consequence. But when is this consequence too harsh?
Below is the most recent bit of output by developer Capybara Games, the studio responsible for Superborther: Sword & Sorcery EP and Super Time Force. Below is different from those two games in the fact that it is a procedurally generated top-down dungeon crawler. In this title, you travel deeper and deeper into the depths just for the sake of exploration. You will encounter plenty of enemies and fauna to cut down with your weapons along the way and will find plenty of objects to pick up and craft together. You’ll also die. A lot. Below is a tough game.
This game is a gorgeous exercise in minimalism. The visuals manage to convey incredible depth with very little, with particle effects sparsely coating the foreground and dense fog covering up much of the beautiful pixel-work until you get close enough. Music is sparse in this title but it manages to kick in at the most affecting parts. While you’ll mostly be treated to ambiance, you will find a good tune seep through the atmosphere every so often. The UI is also unobtrusive and helps to keep you immersed in the isolation of the depths.
"Below is an unforgiving game. The mechanics in place are easy to understand and you’re given plenty of time to toy around with them and get a handle on them, but once you mess up, you’re punished for it harshly."
In Below, you aren’t given any text prompts or any guidance. You have to figure everything out and learn the ins and outs of the mechanics all on your own. The game opens up with a boat ride that eventually leads you to a secluded island. Once you’re on the island, you’ll run around a bit, perhaps play around with the crafting system, and then run into a large stone slab that you can’t get by. After fiddling about, you’ll realize by experimentation that the lantern that you picked up is your means of entry. From there, your journey really starts.
This is a simple title. You’re trying to find the many shards of light that are hidden away deep within the depths. You have a sword and a shield as your main means of attack. You also have a bow along with arrows that you keep in your inventory. You’ll find more weaponry and armor as you delve deeper. You can find objects scattered about and craft them into supplies like arrows, bandages, or higher quality crafting items. You also have a food, water, and warmth gauge to keep an eye on. These gauges aren’t too obtrusive and they’re easy enough to keep full as long as you’re prepared. Sources of water are spread out everywhere in the early game and you won’t even have to worry about the warmth unless you go into an area like the ice depths. The need to really keep an eye on these gauges is ushered in slowly so as to not overwhelm the player. And that’s good because as well-paced as this game is, it’s brutal.
Below is an unforgiving game. The mechanics in place are easy to understand and you’re given plenty of time to toy around with them and get a handle on them, but once you mess up, you’re punished for it harshly. Although you’ll probably die plenty from enemies, combat is not especially a focus of the game. More often than not, you’ll find yourself dying to a well-placed spike trap or from getting lost and starving to death. Your most valuable tool is your lantern. It helps you progress and move obstacles in your path. It helps illuminate your surroundings and spot traps easily. But once you die and lose it, you’d better hope that you’re prepared for the trek back to retrieve it.
"Choosing whether or not to go back to a previous campfire to bank your valuables or to continue pushing forward into the depths creates an interesting tension and helps add purpose to your journey."
In this title, your belongings are all dropped where you die and stay there until you come back to retrieve it. But if you should end up dying again before collecting it, your belongings are lost to the elements and now your most recent death is the only one with supplies on it. Except for your lantern. That’s always going to remain where you initially dropped it until you manage to get back to it and pick it up. There is a means of teleportation between campfires but it’s only a one-time use and you have to preemptively set it up using pieces of light before you die. So in a worst case scenario, you could be looking at a trek that has you going through most of the depths in order to grab your supplies before heading off in a whole new direction to grab your lantern, a process that could take upwards of fifteen minutes. And that’s only if you actually manage to make it through the areas and reach your gear safely. Otherwise, you could end up in a loop of failed loot runs that can stretch for a good chunk of playtime.
You are given a system where you can store items away though. When you rest at campfires, you’re taken away to a dream state where you can store crafting items, bits of light, armor, among other things. This dream state can be accessed at every campfire and it is the game’s only way of making sure your possessions are safe. This is a great addition and does a lot to cut down the monotony of gathering materials every time you have to go back out.
Choosing whether or not to go back to a previous campfire to bank your valuables or to continue pushing forward into the depths creates an interesting tension and helps add purpose to your journey.
The environments in Below all have a sense of identity that’s unique to each level. The rooms in Below are all procedurally generated, but the general layout of the levels stays the same. This is definitely a good thing since it’s possible to find your old body without searching the entire level. The levels bring about their own issues to worry about, whether it be freezing cold, a greater emphasis on traps, or more dense fog. You have to tread carefully; these are levels that you never really feel comfortable running through. The levels are also populated with enemies, many of which drop bits of light that you can use to power your lantern. This actually ends up helping you and when the game later starts to take these enemies away, it actually makes survival harder. The variety and pace of the levels helps keep the game from feeling stale.
"While Below is a beautiful title and it offers players a unique and isolated experience, this is still a very divisive title."
There’s also a few things in this package that will reward diligent players. If you invest into finding or unlocking them. There’s plenty of environmental puzzles, like using your bow to hit a switch far off, that offer rewards like additional supplies. There are also hidden shops that you can spend bits of light at in order to get armor and keys. Shortcuts are spaced out through the depths as well and provide a more reliable way to make it back to previous areas than the campfires allow. All this comes together to really emphasis what this game is all about: the exploration. After everything is said and done, this game is moreso about the simple act of seeing new environments more than anything else. To see how far you can go, how deep you can make it, what new sights you can see; this is the true goal of Below.
While Below is a beautiful title and it offers players a unique and isolated experience, this is still a very divisive title. Aside from the aforementioned difficulty, there is also the issue of repetition baked into the game’s mechanics. Going back to retrieve your gear over and over and wandering through the same sights over and over is not going to be for every player out there. This is a dungeon crawler at its core and it shows. For every person who can buy into the atmosphere and get sucked into the oppressive tone, there will be another person who will just be bored and wanting to get to the next new piece of the game. Below requires patience from its players just as much as it requires a methodical approach to its world. But if that all sounds like a game that you can get behind, then this will give you an experience that few other games get close to.
This game was reviewed on the PC.
Beautiful atmosphere, Tight controls and minimal UI and Interesting locales.
Repetition can be draining, Some enemy types can feel like trial-and-error.