After five long years of development and tantalising teases at various events, indie developer Capybara Games’s highly anticipated isometric roguelike Below is finally in the hands of fans. In many ways, the game lives up to expectations by presenting a thoroughly fascinating and engaging experience, yet one can not help feel those aspects are undermined by a lack of focus on those areas of a game like this that matter most.
The overall theme of Below is mystery: players control an unknown traveller who travels to an island shrouded in mist and, with no further direction or known goal, must journey down into the earth. This simple premise could otherwise easily be ignored or dismissed, yet the game’s grippingly gloomy presentation successfully stokes the player’s curiosity, urging them to continue deeper and deeper if only to discover what lies ahead. This aspect of Below is immediately identifiable as its strength; a simple, painterly art style is often confusingly beautiful for how dark and dead its environments are, and when paired with an equally intimidating (yet fantastic) score, the atmosphere they create alone makes the game well worth the price of admission.
Of course, the game also has a story for those who pay attention. As players create their own narrative by braving new threats and delving ever deeper, the secrets of the island are slowly revealed, satisfyingly drip-feeding the player with enough clues to eventually piece together an overall story that ends up making sense. The story is subtle, but each discovery is refreshing enough to be considered a motivating reward to press on.
This theme of mystery is appropriately extended to the gameplay, which is equally vague yet uniquely compelling as a result. Nothing is explained, and players must learn through experience how everything from combat to simple menu screens work. Often, they must learn the hard way: going into dark, unfamiliar dungeons crawling with monsters is generally not a good idea, but one must learn to properly face them thereafter. While gameplay itself is simple and offers little immediate variety, this makes for an exceptionally rewarding experience, and often results in genuine surprises that are more memorable than any plot twist in a narrative-driven game.
Additionally, underlying this theme is Below’s defining unforgiving difficulty. Though players are motivated by curiosity and the urge to explore, the omnipresent threat of death forces them to stay cautious: one simple mistake could see their familiar traveller unceremoniously crushed or killed, sending the player back to the very start of the game and forcing them to retrace their prior steps. Thankfully, one can discover shortcuts along the way that make the journey back to their corpse somewhat easier, but the penalty is enough to enforce care. This mechanic creates diverse, dynamic gameplay that changes from player to player, and presents an enthralling meta-conflict between caution and curiosity; between carefully traversing dark dungeons and recklessly chasing progress.
Further, elements of survival and crafting only reinforce the necessity of staying alive and provide some generally non-intrusive variety to the game’s otherwise simple gameplay. Enemies and chests drop resources like food and water such that hunger and thirst are not usually of concern, but simply taking a moment to replenish health and craft items at campfires after potentially fatal encounters with monsters is refreshing and rewarding enough, even if it means inevitably braving more of them soon after.
Unfortunately, these mechanics can sometimes feel unfair as they often take a backseat to exploration and general combat. One can easily forget that their hunger can deplete health or that taking damage can cause bleeding, which simply takes the player out of the action and away from exploring and forces them to divide their attention between progress and survival. Likewise, the game’s effective enforcement of caution can also feel outright cheap: it is generally satisfying, but being insta-killed by hidden traps only serves to unfairly and artificially increase difficulty, and makes long treks back from the very beginning frustrating when it should be exciting. Even between so many deserved deaths, a few unfair ones can leave the player demotivated and unwilling to push on — something some players will not be able to easily forgive.
Similarly, in its efforts to remain brutally difficult, the game often neglects its own necessities. Being a dark dungeon crawler, one’s lantern is essential to effectively progress through each lightless room — yet the entire game has only one, and when players die, the lantern stays with their corpse. This mechanic makes each restart a desperate search for that lantern, unnecessarily forcing the player to blindly backtrack many floors while somehow expecting them to remain calm and cautious. This simple oversight effectively undermines the very point of the game, all too often making restarting from the beginning worth quitting the game over.
This imbalance truly holds Below back from being what it wants to be. Despite flawless presentation and such interesting concepts, one cannot help but feel that the game’s literal gameplay needs more work. This is not to say that the game is a wholly unenjoyable experience; fans of roguelikes, RPGs, and survival games will certainly gain something from it, and those who have fallen in love with the fascinating design of games like Dark Souls will appreciate the concept. However, those with less tolerance or experience with those genres might simply find playing Below a chore.
Still, the game is an undeniably refreshing experience and a rather intriguing introduction to roguelikes for newcomers to the genre. Unfortunately, what the game lacks in terms of consistently gratifying gameplay is not wholly made up for by such excellent presentation and solid underlying concepts.