Below Review – Tough Wanderers Only
Developer: Capybara Games
Release Date: December 14, 2018
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Publisher: Capybara Games
Several of today’s games are chock full of features that graciously help players out. Features like waypoints that tell players where to go and what to do, along with frequent autosaves and checkpoints, are, for the most part, in action-adventure games that have released in the last five years or so.
Below, the long-awaited action-adventure roguelite from Capybara Games, however, isn’t like other action-adventure games — it was designed to be as difficult as possible. The steep difficulty of Below will either make you want to continue to go deeper and deeper into its world or it’ll make you lose interest over time.
Instead of playing as a mighty hero, you play as a tiny, nameless wanderer who has sailed his way to a mysterious and desolate island that has a vast, dangerous, and deep subterranean underworld beneath it. Much like how Below is overall, the opening cutscene — which consists of looking at storm clouds and then at the wanderer’s slow and steady boat voyage to the island — is a test of patience, as it takes a little over 5 minutes for it to finish. I believe the opening is meant to serve as an indicator that patience is a key requirement for playing Below, and it increased my already high curiosity level for the game, but to be brutally honest — the opening was a bit too long.
After the long-winded opening, however, Below then truly begins as once you land on the island, it’s up to you to figure out what to do, where to go, and for the most, learn what everything is around you and how to play. At its core, Below is a roguelite survival game with a dash of RPG elements. It’s a game that encourages exploration and discovery; a prime example of the “Not all those who wander are lost” quote from J.R.R. Tolkien. There are a few quick pop-ups with direct button prompts here and there, and a straightforward map to look at, but ultimately, there is zero hand-holding in the game — no tutorials, no hints, no directions (or the usual waypoints in most games), and no descriptions for items and equipment.
Spelunking through the depths of Below is like exploring the inside of a Pandora’s box — you’re never completely sure what awaits you and what you’ll find as you explore the randomly generated labyrinth in the game. It’s open, non-linear, trial and error flow can and will cause you to be perplexed multiple times throughout your journey — most likely leading to hopeless frustration for a good chunk of players. For me, there were numerous times where I often found myself scratching my head as I tried to find the path that would lead me to a lower floor.
Every journey you take in Below is unique, and this is because of the multiple gameplay systems that require your utmost attention. Throughout the entire game, all you have to rely on is a handy lantern (which lights up your environment and also activates and reveals secrets), a useful bonfire, materials like water bottles and food, simple but trusty weapons, and practical armor. Learning how and when to use what’s available is essential as Below has tough challenges that can be fair and unfortunately, frustrating.
With the materials in your inventory, you can craft certain items, like mixing embers, sticks, and strings to create torches or mixing water and bat meat to make a stew, that’ll help you survive. Like in other survival games, Below features a thirst and hunger meter, along with a health meter that needs to be checked on. I never had many issues with these survival elements, in particular, as I always had plenty of food and water to spare. The most important key to your survival are bonfires that are scattered around that can be used as a teleporter, crafting tool, storage unit, and even a valuable save point.
When you die in Below, you have to start from scratch as a new wanderer, and if you don’t make use of a bonfire’s saving ability — you’ll be sent back to the very beginning of the game’s world. There are a few shortcuts that make getting back to lower floors easier, and there’s the option to go back to your old dead body and pick up what you lost. The permadeath system is harsh but it does add more challenge to the game. With this said, however, it can be an absolute pain as there were a few times where I spent hours just going back to where I was before. Progressing through Below was exciting and thrilling at times, but infuriating every now and then, too.
Below’s combat is the low point of the game. Combat is much like the classic, old-school Legend of Zelda combat system where you simply and quickly strike enemies down and avoid getting hit. While the combat feels smooth, there’s nothing about it that stands out — which makes it shallow and repetitive. When I had to return to previous areas for the fifth or sixth time, having to fight the same enemies over and over again wasn’t enjoyable, and instead, was cumbersome — especially when there are instant-death traps to watch out for.
While there’s a lot to be desired with its combat, Below’s fascinating presentation, music, and audio design make it a stylish and wondrous adventure. The dark and gloomy yet fascinating look of the world — paired with the game’s tilt-shift camera effect and wide camera view — captured my attention throughout my playthrough and gave me a sense of how I was just a small part of a massive world. At first, however, some players may have a hard time spotting things like their wanderer and what’s around the wanderer.
Similar to Capy’s previous titles, Super TIME Force and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, Below features an alluring soundtrack from the magnificent composer, Jim Guthrie, that perfectly matches the dark tone of the game. Every track has such a tremendous impact on your experience — and further develops your feelings of hopefulness, uneasiness, and curiosity.
Below is tough, for better and for worse. It recaptures the old days of video games where players were required to explore and discover in order to continue moving forward. Figuring out all the bits and pieces of Below is satisfying, but it also leads to times of immense frustration that are hard to ignore. If you’re looking for a compelling yet difficult adventure that has a powerful soundtrack, then Below is worth spelunking through.
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