Stunning, evocative but rarely fun
"Changes and progress very rarely are gifts from above. They come out of struggles from below."
BELOW 2018, XBOX ONE
Announced all the way back in 2013, Below by Capybara games spent nearly 6 years in development before finally releasing out of nowhere at the tail end of 2018. Throughout this time period the game underwent several dramatic design changes. Somewhere along the way the team decided to shift from their traditional 2D art style to a 3D model which brought forth a ton of programming challenges in adapting their existing art and lighting solutions. For Capy it was a learning experience and a labor of love, but while the team toiled to bring this project to the finish line most of us for years had one burning question - what is this game even about?
Below is a little bit of everything - there is crafting, there is exploration, there are survival mechanics and there is mystery..but primarily in it’s own unique way it is a run based experience.. sort of. Unfortunately first and foremost Below is frustrating. Throughout my playtime of nearly 20 hours I became obsessed with beating this game, but not in the traditional sense of beating it like you would any other piece of interactive media, I specifically became focused on not letting it beat me. But lets back up a bit - what is Below?
After a lengthy single shot pan of a tiny boat sailing adrift a vast ocean before eventually reaching a mysterious island, a stylistic choice that is set to turn plenty of people away before the game even begins, the controls are handed off and you're left to fend for yourself. Below takes inspiration from plenty of contemporary titles and the very first of those motifs you’ll experience is the absolute lack of hand holding. Beyond the few simple tips on how to control your tiny adventurer, you are left to interpret and make sense of your surroundings on your own. As they say hindsight is 20/20, and looking back I can see how a lot of what I did early in the game was trying to teach me mechanics and rulesets to be followed for the latter half of my journey - but in the moment, quite literally fresh off the boat, these lessons are not so apparent.
The crux of the game is that you come to this island, find a mysterious lantern, and begin your descent into a vast network of underground “mazes” in an attempt to reach some sort of meaning to it all. What lies below? That is for you to find out. There is little in the way of guidance or narrative exposition. What little signposting exists is presented in the beginning minutes of the game at which point you are left to freely explore the island. What actually lies below is a harsh experience of clashing mechanics and harsh consequences. Below divides it’s many areas into floors, and each “foor” has a somewhat randomized set of rooms that eventually lead to the next floor and so forth. A floor might always consist of 4 rooms arranged in a diamond shape, but each of those rooms will always be slightly different. So entering certain areas you know that an exit is always to the bottom of the screen, it’s just a matter of traversing the rooms to get there - an action that is easier said than done.
There are no real puzzles in Below as much as an act of overcoming your surroundings as you simply move from area to area seeking the exit that will take you down to a lower level and hopefully bringing you closer to the heart of the mystery. There are a scant few secrets in the form of hidden rooms locked behind crumbling walls but those are few and far in between although some of them contain extremely important pieces of gear. While you initially can only move forward in a single set path, you will encounter a few different biomes along the way each with their own unique architecture, enemies and environmental challenges. Generally your goal is to explore until you reach a definite endpoint, typically signaled by obtaining a key piece of your lantern, and then you move on to other zones. The game plays much like a twin stick shooter albeit with a sword, with one stick controlling all movement while the other aims your attacks. You start with a sword, shield and bow and these are the tools that you will primarily use throughout your journey and ones that always carry over from death to death. Despite the rather simple nature of the combat you do have a few different moves available like a forward lunge or an overhead strike from a sprint, although for the most part simple hacking and slashing will do. There aren’t too many enemy types and apart from one particular creature that blocks your attacks, everything can be easily overcome with wild swinging and occasional dodging. It’s simple but I found it satisfying. Your tiny adventurer is responsive and the action is arcady enough to be fun without getting too bogged down with complicated combat mechanics.
Of course soon you will realize that combat is the least of your problems. Below being the weird amalgamation of genres that it is leans heavily into survival. While exploring the depths of this strange island you will more often be combating thirst and hunger rather than corporeal foes. A good portion of the game is spent in resource management, and crafting is the name of the game. Below utilizes a simple yet robust crafting system as the backbone of it’s gameplay. Basically you combine any three elements from your inventory to make a wide variety of items - it’s a game in of itself to experiment and learn various recipes since there is no journal, no log or recipe book. You either memorize these formulas or you write them down which in some way is part of the charm and adds mystery to it all. Some recipes are simple enough while others will take a bit trial and error - for instance a torch is made from a stick, a piece of ember and string. Generally I imagine torches to be sticks wrapped with some sort of rag but close enough I suppose. A Torch+ that burns for longer periods of time is made from a stick, phosphorus which is made from three pieces of ember joined together, and cloth which you make from three pieces of string. This sort of mix and matching and stacking of inventory items to create newer and better tools is a very core part of gameplay. Thankfully highlighting items in your inventory will show which other items they can interact with in order to create a new “thing” so you’re not completely blind as to how the pieces fit together. A large portion of the early game is spent picking up anything off the ground and instantly checking how it interacts with your other items, possibly discovering new formulas along the way. Your inventory is limited so it’s not uncommon to take a time out in order to go over your items, combine lesser ones into higher forms to free up some space, dropping less needed things for higher value resources etc etc. And thats just the item part.. In order to survive you need to craft food, and to craft food you need to kill animals to get meat or find vegetables randomly growing in the world, and then you need a flask of water and then you need to find a campfire to combine all of this to make a meal so you don’t starve several levels deep into a dungeon. It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that stews, your basic meal recipe which fill up your hunger and thirst meter, have many different variations that bestow upon you different stat buffs which naturally are never explained or clearly spelled out. To this day I have no idea what the white potion does or what the eye icon above my stats means.. But it makes the grumbling tummy noises go away so there is that.
The most fascinating part of Below is finding out how you’re actually meant to play. There is an entire meta-game behind traversing the island which only becomes apparent once you reach more challenging zones. At the outset it seems like the game is about diving into the unknown and simply braving the challenges as they appear, but in reality in order to survive and do well a good deal of preparation is not only recommended but almost required. Very early on you will discover a “pocket” that can be accessed through the campfires free of charge and it acts as a home base where you can store items in between runs. Anything stored in the pocket carries over from death to death and the space itself can be upgraded to store more items by finding a special upgrade item within the dungeons. This is where the run-based mechanics come into play. The basic loop is that you play until you die, and when that happens everything resets. The maps you made from exploring floors get wiped, the rooms reshuffle, the treasure chests reset and a brand new adventurer sails onto the island ready to begin anew. Suddenly it all clicks into place and with dread you realize the inevitable - you will have to farm materials and store resources if you want to get ahead. At some point you won't be able to just wing it. An important part of the game are treasure chests that contain unique gear with special properties. A hat that doubles the amount of lantern fuel you get from enemies, a helm that halves the damage you take or headgear that nullifies status ailments inflicted by certain areas. These pieces of gear are initially static pickups from specific chests, but once you collect them on subsequent runs that chest will contain a randomized piece of equipment from the pool of already discovered items. So for example the chest located in a cave near the beach will always contain a spear the first time you encounter it, but after a death that chest will contain a random item - a torch, a bandage, armor or one of the unique helmets you've already discovered. The pocket is vital because once you find a particularly useful piece of gear like the Void Helm which as mentioned will double the amount of resources you gain from kill enemies you will want to store this it for farming purposes. Any useful gear for farming is stored like tools in a shed. You die, come back ashore, go to the nearest pocket, equip the spear to hunt for food, equip the helm to build up bits, and when this act of resource gathering is completed you store the items safely away so that when you do die again they aren't lost. Of course if you’re a pro player then thats never an issue, but for mere mortals that need the help of healing items or lantern fuel, farming for materials will become a crucial part of the experience in between runs. The realization that this is not just a weird and spooky indie game with cool art and moody music, but a punishing survival, rogue-lite, souls-like, Spelunky-esque treadmill is where the brakes might engage for a lot of people that managed to persevere this far.
You see Below is a game of contradiction. It asks you to explore, but it introduces hunger and thirst mechanics that act as timers always ticking down in the background, nagging and hurrying you along lest you die from starvation. It asks you to scour areas for secrets but your main means of doing so burns away a valuable resource. It wants you to backtrack but dying is frightfully easy and comes at a tremendous cost. Although not apparent at the outset, in order to finish the game you must find and collect shard pieces of your lantern. These shards are normally invisible, only appearing as magical, shivering domes of energy when in the presence of light from the very lantern you are attempting to complete. The lantern is fueled by bits. Bits drop from specific enemies that primarily show up in the first few beginning floors. Having the lantern on at all times will drain bits over time and focusing the beam in order to unlock secret or drive away enemies will greatly intensify this burn rate. The shards are strewn about throughout the world meaning it is in your best interest to keep the magical lantern on at all times on the off chance you walk by one of them - and so you see the catch. You have a finite resource that can be mined from one early area and one late game area, but the game asks you to have this thing on at all times. And it’s not just a matter of finding the lamp shards. Below is an intentionally dark game so even if not for the shards you still want to have the lantern on to see ahead of you because plenty of the floors are peppered with traps that will instantly kill your tiny wanderer regardless of health or armor. You have a chance to make your way back to your corpse and collect your currency, items and equipment, but along with your body you also drop your magical lantern which you absolutely need to retrieve to progress the game forward. So if you die the corpse run just got a little harder as you will have to craft enough torches to get you from the beach to your lantern/corpse however far down it is. Torches will burn out, they require three randomly generated materials to be crafted out of, and unlike the lantern they will not highlight traps or allow you to use your shield and sword at the same time. Highlighting traps is important because thanks to the random generation these spikes that jump out from the floor and kill you instantly can sometimes get placed behind pillars and without the red outline indicating danger that your lantern shows you will simply run behind a rock and die without having a chance to avoid it. This will happen and you will hate it. The lantern is also necessary specific doors and interact with the environment. Even if you die within the deepest of depths, lose everything and are left with absolutely nothing, the lantern will remain on that floor you died on and it needs to be collected if you plan on finishing the game. I guess it’s time to hit those early levels and grind out some bandages, some food, some torches which are now a necessity since you no longer have a light source.. a solid 30-40 minutes of resource gathering before you can even attempt to go get your corpse back.
This is where my biggest issue with the game came into play. Below will waste a lot of your time on busy work. Dying is extremely dangerous because of the amount of time you will need to invest into getting back to the same place, and unlike other games it’s not informative. You don’t really learn much from dying in Below. This isn’t Dark Souls where you keep everything but your currency and you've learned the level and enemy patterns because the areas get randomly reshuffled. Below strips you of literally everything you have like a typical run based game, but it also takes away your main means of progressing the game tasking you with the arduous task of getting back the lantern while you're at a great disadvantage. You can spend your precious bits to create one time use teleports at the campfires in order to create checkpoints along your journey should you meat an untimely end, but if you teleport and die before reaching your corpse then you arrive back at the island with no currency, your previous body and all the items on it gone forever, and the one time teleport no longer active forcing you to go back into the early areas to gather resources and craft torches and food for the journey back to your body and lantern. The shortcuts you unlock which are one of the few constants in the game are placed in such locations that it’s still a bummer to use them. The most notorious area in the entire game has a shortcut that requires you to first climb up the cliff at the beach, ride an elevator down, go down a bunch of ladders and then approach another extremely long cliffside that you need to once again slowly climb down before reaching two more areas on the way to the entrance of the place you died in, and probably three floors deep at that. The first time you make this trip it’s cinematic full of ambient music and beautiful play of light. The other times it’s a huge pain in the butt and a boring set of areas where you simply hold the thumbstick down in a direction for long periods of time. It can be literally maddening when you die and just want to get back to the place you were as quickly as possible, but against all logic the game forces you to stop and farm materials lest you drive yourself deeper into a corner of exhausted resources and increasingly stacked odds of retrieving the ever important lantern. My breaking point came in the form of a bug. After many hours spent traversing a particularly awful part of the game that many players complain about on the Steam Discussion groups I had finally managed to clear it and unlock the shortcut that would circumvent that horror place once and for all. I went back to earlier locations in order to collect any stray lantern shards and upon my return the shortcut was gone.. After some googling I realized that the fine folks at Capy are not complete sadists, that this is a common bugafter all. I decided to take a break and wait for the patch, I was not about to traverse those 4 hellish floors again if I didn't have to. The patch came and went, the shortcut was still broken, as was my spirit. I decided this is it, I’m just never playing this again. An hour went by and I was gritting my teeth, traversing the horror levels of floor 15 and downwards once again - after all I was not going to let this thing beat me.
To be honest I’m not even sure what kept me going. The art design is phenomenal. I loved the pulled out camera, I love the subtle blurring at the edges of the screen. I love all the beautiful light and shadow play when you carry a light source. The soundtrack is equally mesmerizing with subtle haunting melodies that perfectly fit the mood of exploring weird forgotten ruins. I loved the mystery of it all, not knowing what is happening and craving to see what is going to come next. Generally I enjoyed the moment to moment gameplay. Your character is responsive and there is a crispness to everything from a design perspective that I really appreciate. There is magic here that spoke to me.. But boy did I hate playing large swathes of this game. The hours I spent grinding to get through a woefully dreadful place designed to irritate more than anything.. Floors 15 and down.. The tentacles.. Those were not good times. For purposes of full disclosure I looked up videos on how to actually finish the game and to be quite honest I'm not sure how anyone would be meant to figure out the steps necessary to do so in an organic way. Through perseverance, lots of backtracking and trial and error maybe, but Below is not a game where you can just run through levels to check for secrets as it is exhausting for both the player and the little adventurer in a pointy hat on screen. It's a convoluted mess that pushes you back at every turn.. and yet I kept coming back for whatever reason.
Should you play Below? I don’t know. You should experience it because I think it’s incredibly unique, but I’m not sure if it’s worth sticking around until the end which takes considerable effort to reach. I’m sure the challenge will speak to a select group of people while pushing away a vast majority of others. Without any spoilers I will say that the story goes in a direction that is both fascinating and pointless. It’s a great sequence that makes absolutely no sense in context with what you’ve been accomplishing in the game world up to that point. If you have XBOX Game Pass then it’s an easy recommend to try since it’s already there. For those looking to buy it on Steam I would seriously wait for a decent sale before you decide to give it a shot. By that point a lot of the bugs should get ironed out as well. Below is not an awful game, but it’s one that I have a hard time recommending to anyone and I guess that speaks volumes..