Below review: an atmospheric, mysterious experience made frustrating, tedious


By Danny Ryerson, Copy Editor
Game: Below (stylized BELOW)
Platform: Xbox One, Windows 10
Release date: Dec. 14, 2018
Genre: Roguelite, action-adventure
Developer: Capybara Games
Publisher: Capybara Games
I first heard about Below in 2013 in the wake of the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), but I didn’t hear a single thing about it after that for five years. After a while with not so much as a peep about the game, I forgot about it.
Then, two days before the game released on Dec. 14, developer Capybara Games put out a release trailer for Below with next to no forewarning. It was a stroke of luck that I even caught wind of its release at all, but it was nice to see a game that I had been initially excited for finally come out of development hell.
Looking back, it’s kind of funny how silent the development cycle was, given that the game seems to be the same way. Below opens with one of the most atmospheric cutscenes I’ve ever seen—— almost three minutes of slow zoom on a tiny sailboat in an ocean so big it looks like a starry night at first glance—— and there isn’t a single word spoken throughout.
That’s something that I think Below does excellently: atmosphere. Anything related to the story whatsoever is told through the environment and what the player can see, which is refreshing in an era where games load you down with exposition like it’s mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving.
That theme is kept steady throughout the game. I can count on one hand the amount of times Below gave me anything to read; names of items in the crafting menu, prices in the two shops I’ve found so far, picking up items on the ground, achievements and telling me how to use the mysterious lantern that is the driving force behind the plot.
Most of the gameplay revolves around exploring the caverns below (duh) the small island that the aforementioned sailboat washes up on in order to collect “light bits” for the lantern, which itself is a combo between a light source and magic(?) key. However, there is only one lantern, and when you die, you die for good.
Permanent death, resource management and other roguelite trappings form the bulk of Below’s challenge, but this is where the game starts to waver.
The biggest hallmark of roguelites is random level generation, which ensures that no two runs look the same. Below, however, uses a light touch with randomness. Landmarks are generally in the same places, chest drop the same items, maps are laid out roughly the same, etc., which makes dying and restarting feel more like a respawn than another run through the ever-shifting dungeon.
The second biggest item on the roguelite checklist is permadeath. In most roguelite games, dying “only” sends you back to the start of the game, but in Below, every time your character dies, the pacing grinds to a halt as it’s virtually required to bum around the island, picking up as many supplies as possible before heading back down. In an already slow game, it’s almost unbearable.
This wouldn’t be an issue if going to pick up the aforementioned lantern wasn’t necessary to progress through each level, as almost every section has a part which requires the player to shine the lantern on some secret door or something. If it was possible to just leave the last guy’s skeleton alone and continue on, maybe the pregame process of gearing up before heading down wouldn’t be so bad.
Then again, it was still tedious when the game washed up the last guy and the lantern on the starting beach for me, which happened during one particularly difficult section. I still had to spend fifteen minutes hunting, fishing, foraging and brewing potions beforehand, which was just more time wasted in a game where death is abrupt and often instant.
Part of the roguelite philosophy that I really admire is that the only punishment for failure is restarting. It adds an element of challenge and tension that’s only broken by a few seconds of frustration upon death before jumping right back into the action.
Making me wait for a quarter of an hour before I can play again is just frustrating, doubly so when the last guy’s corpse despawns if you die before reaching it, making any non-lantern items on the body disappear forever. On top of that, it’s a 50/50 shot as to whether or not the game will crash after a death, which adds even more empty downtime to the experience.
Atmosphere and story aside, there really isn’t anything else carrying the game. The combat has potential, being a mix between a twin-stick shooter and ‘Dark Souls,’ but it’s very samey, and none of the unique weapons that I picked up really wowed me. Except for the spear, of course, but that was only because it finally gave me a way to fish.
All in all, I’m curious to see what the rest of the story holds, but I can’t find the motivation to continue playing, and at its current price of $25, I wouldn’t recommend picking this game up. If it ends up on sale someday for 10 bucks, then sure, but for today, the undisturbed secrets of what lies below are going to stay that way.