Below is one of those games I've had my eyes on for years, literally. First announced at Microsoft's E3 2013 press conference, I've wondered what was happening with its development ever since. The release of this game has sometimes felt as mysterious as its premise. As excited as I was to finally get my hands on it, Below is far from what I expected.
Below's visuals are even more beautiful than early builds. The isometric style really pops, and every environment I went through took my breath away. This is impressive, considering that there's only so much you can do with an underground theme. Yet, Below manages to add a great variety of procedurally-generated dungeons to explore. As you descend the depths of a mysterious island, you'll encounter standard, dark caves, icy caverns, and bone-filled catacombs. Below is incredibly dark, but this is not to its detriment. After all, you're literally below the surface. It's an especially atmospheric game, and the score is a perfect companion to the beautiful style.
Composed by Jim Guthrie, the soundtrack is mysterious and minimalistic when needed, and ominously raucous elsewhere. When Capybara Games is at the helm, you know you're in for a treat as far as sound goes. The ambient audio is equally stellar, with every step echoing through these dark caves with certain enemies making guttural sounds when hit.
As far as the aesthetic, the only downside is how hard it can be to acclimate to the perspective. Your character is very small, while the perspective is up very high, so everything looks tiny. I assume it was in order to emphasize the utter vastness of the spaces you explore, but sometimes it can be detrimental to gameplay.
Gameplay is where Below goes all wrong, unfortunately. The first indicator of what was to come should have been the intro. When you boot up Below and press play for the first time, you're met with an extremely long-winded sequence. It starts with an exceedingly far out view of an ocean and clouds, and the camera gradually gets closer. You can make out a ship, and eventually, you realize this ship holds your character. This introduction was so long, I thought that everything was loading in and this was a cool loading screen. Instead, it was this aforementioned long-winded sequence, which perfectly describes my overall thoughts.
When I landed on the beach, I scaled a cliff and eventually found a lantern-like object. Then, I found the ominous opening to the depths of this island. Things start off pretty easy at first. There are these black, shadow-like creatures with a red light that you have to kill, and they drop light gems for you to collect. I continued on in the dungeon before a spike trap impaled me.
It appeared to be a bit like Dark Souls, where you learn from your mistake every time. The problem here is that I lost my spear and that lantern, and currency. I have no problem losing my light gems currency, but losing all your gear and lantern felt devastating. Players who die have to return to their corpse to regain any lost loot. I liked this system at first. It was funny to find a skeleton, impaled on a spike trap with the lantern and loot on it. I picked it up and went on my way.
If you're like me, you'll die every so often while playing. I succumbed to these spike traps a few more times, mostly due to my character's floaty movement. You can make them trigger by swiping at them, but sometimes you just fall into them. If you don't die from the environment, the enemies will kill you.
The combat is pretty bland, but it works. Enemies aren't too difficult. There's a decent variety throughout, from these shadow creatures to husk-like zombies. They all have different, albeit basic attack patterns. There are several weapons you can equip, but you always spawn with a sword, a shield, and a bow. You can block with your shield while jabbing with the sword, or take longer swipes without raising the shield. Bows and arrows felt really strange to use, mostly because Below's duel-stick nature makes aiming feel extremely sensitive. I ended up using melee weapons most of the time, including a spear and hammer. Overall though, there's little weapon variety.
Further, in Below your character is extremely squishy. A hit can cause you to bleed, which will drain a set amount of health if left uncared for. A hit can sometimes just completely kill you, so armor is essential. Usually, armor drops are few and far between, as are weapons. Most of the time, I had to make do with the sword and shield.
Survival elements are another factor to consider. There's a hunger, thirst, and temperature meter. It seemed like an odd choice when everything else is trying to kill you. You can bottle water and hunt rats, fish, and other critters if you want food. Temperature is hardly a factor to consider except in one section of Below, so temperature seemed tacked on and unnecessary. I have a problem with these factors more than combat or traps.
But really, hunger and thirst also felt like a needless inclusion. I would have a great run in the dungeons of Below, except it seemed harder to find any source of food or water as I went deeper. I rarely died of hunger or thirst, but that's because something else usually got to me first. When it did decrease all the way, it would then diminish my health gradually. When you've made it past seemingly insurmountable odds, yet you die of hunger or thirst because there weren't enough mice or bats to kill, it's really disappointing.
The worst part of this all, though, is respawning, and starting over again. As you descend every few levels, there are shortcuts that will take you back up to the surface. Think of it as similar to the bell tower elevator in Dark Souls, which took you to the Firelink Shrine. That was cool, and convenient, at least. There is also a bonfire-like system. Spending bits you pick up from those shadow enemies allows you to teleport to one specific bonfire, which can be accessed by any other bonfire around for free. The thing is, you only get a single teleport before the bonfire dies out. If you want to use it again, you'd have to die for it to basically replenish and spend the 25 bits again.
Even with the shortcuts, the monotony can be overwhelming. It would sometimes take up to five minutes of walking back to the entrance of the floor I died on, even with the shortcuts. There was nothing going on during that time, just plain old backtracking. There are no enemies to fight and almost no loot to pick up. You'll probably be dying a lot, meaning that playtime comes more from dying and venturing to your corpse instead of actually playing. When you die, of course, you drop your lantern, so it's absolutely essential to go back and grab it.
The lantern is paramount and ties into progression. There are sections where you have to shine your lantern to progress. Without it, you can't reach the ending, and it will not spawn on the beach where every new run in Below begins. Sometimes that means getting beat up on the way to get your lantern and perhaps dying on the way there to get it. It all adds up, and it was so boring and tedious to play that I had to take breaks.
One section of Below is absolutely brutal. Without going too deep into spoilers, it's an extremely dark area filled with enemies and an unrelenting, ever-present threat. It can kill you almost instantly unless you dodge out of the way, and I died a lot to it. The trek back was at least four minutes long every time, only to die over and over again. There's no solace until you spend the time to farm for food, bits for a bonfire, and crafted torches. Often, my lantern would be somewhere in these depths and I would try to get there only to die. The lantern's specific location isn't marked on the map, only what floor it's on. Due to the procedural-generation, it would be in the same room I died in, but the layout would be different.
Crafting torches, preparing food and soup for hunger and health, and gathering bits only goes too far. One wrong move means you lose health, which means another wrong move might kill you. There's a place called The Pocket which serves as your only solace. It's accessible via any bonfire and allows you to bank items for your next run. Usually, those would go away with every death. Since I die often, it all adds up. The simple solution could be to "git gud" but unlike Dark Souls, every death did not feel earned.
To top it all off, to complete Below, you have to collect these parts for your lantern. They're actually called bits; although I referred to the currency as such, there is no dialogue or words so there's no way of telling what the currency is actually called. These bits - pieces of the lantern - are scattered all throughout the over 20 floors of Below. There's no way of knowing that you have to collect every single one to complete the game without researching it yourself, so if you're like me you have to go all the way back through the floors, combing for these obscure bits. The only indicator for a bit are these round force fields you shine your lantern on. They're hidden in strange places, making the grind extremely boring. In the end, beating it does not feel rewarding.
Six years to make Below, and I was cautiously optimistic. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall during development because some of the choices are confusing. The monotony of it all really drained me as a player, although I took solace in its wonderful art and music. In the future, I might be able to appreciate the beauty of Below. However, I'll also remember that it was a wasted opportunity. I'm still looking for the fun, roguelite dungeon crawler that I saw years ago.
TechRaptor reviewed Below on Steam with a code provided by the publisher. It's also available on Xbox One via Xbox Game Pass.
If you like to unravel a mysterious world that doesn't hold your hand, then you might find something in BELOW. If you're looking for an action-packed roguelite, BELOW is not it.
- Breathtaking Visuals and Aesthetics
- Excellent Soundtrack
- The Lantern Drops Where You Die
- Long Treks Back Into the Action
- Tacked-on Survival Mechanics
- Deaths Feel Unfair