Below Is Game That’s Not For Everyone
One of the toughest challenges a game reviewer can face is fairly assessing a game that seems to accomplish what it sets out to do but isn’t a game that they personally like. Unfortunately, for me, Below’s recently released PS4 port is one of those games.
Into the Depths
Developed and published by Canadian indie studio, Capybara Games, Below is a roguelike about a lone adventurer exploring the underground areas of a mysterious island. The goal of the game is to keep heading further and further down into these areas in order to find new weapons, fight mysterious enemies, and explore Metroidvania-style interlinked levels. In terms of story, Below is light on details and, as far as I can tell, there’s no character dialogue.
On paper, this game seemed right up my alley. The movement controls felt smooth, the top-down perspective reminded me of old-school Zelda games, and the sword & shield combat was easy to wrap my head around. In Below, I spent my time exploring, dying, and then exploring some more, which lead to finding new weapons such as spears and bows. Usually, I tried exploring a different part of the starting area after every death and I was pleasantly surprised at finding useful shortcuts that made backtracking after dying a bit easier.
However, one of Below’s biggest issues is that it barely explains itself to the player. According to Capybara, this is deliberate and I can see the appeal of that in a modern gaming landscape filled with overly helpful tutorials. But hardly explaining how your game works goes a bit too far.
For example, there’s no in-game explanation for the differences between its two difficulty modes, “Survival” and the newly added “Explore”. Instead, I had to find this info out via an official PlayStation Blog post written by Capybara’s creative director (which begs the question why this explained isn’t in-game to begin with). “Survival” features life, thirst, and hunger meters while “Explore” only has a life meter. If you’re a first-time player then I’d recommend the latter instead of the former since the game’s real-time inventory management is clunky to use when you need to quickly cycle through items to refill your hunger & thirst meters.
Additionally, there’s a lack of gameplay tutorials for important mechanics such as saving and real-time crafting. Eventually, I got used to how the game’s combat and door puzzles worked but there are still things I’m unclear on like how the game’s campfires work.
At first, I thought that lighting fires saved your progress but that’s only in the case of turning the game off so every time you die you restart from the very beginning. There’s also these special campfires that be used to make specific food items, transport the player to an area where they can stash supplies, and turn blue for some reason whenever collectable shards are used on them. Another unexplained mechanic allows the player to (maybe?) burn open, bleeding wounds to close them.
Out of all these issues, my biggest problem with the game is having to redo so much after every death. Every time I died, I had to watch a short but slow intro, rediscover the relevant parts of each level’s map, and retrieve items from my corpse. I understand that redoing progress after death is one of the staples of the roguelike genre and this tedium was somewhat mitigated by running past enemies to reach where I previously died. But, having to repeatedly do this began to grate on me the further I got into the game.
Exploring a level the first time is fun since Below features beautiful environments with an eerie atmospheric soundtrack that sets the dark, solitary tone of the game’s world. However, that atmosphere was lost whenever I died, sighed, and resigned myself to speeding through beaten levels so I could retrieve lost items and try again. The levels stopped being fun to explore and became tedious obstacles that I had to run through just so that I could maybe make a little bit more progress this time.
Below is a roguelike that excels at making players truly feel like they’re a lone adventurer on a dangerous island filled with secrets. I liked its simple, colorful art style, its music, and atmosphere, but the gameplay pushed me away.
*Reviewed with PS4 digital code provided by publisher*
- Dark compelling atmosphere
- Beautiful environments
- Eerie music that sets the tone well
- Lacking tutorials
- Frustrating gameplay loop
- Confusing game mechanics