Capybara Games’ darkly enchanting action/adventure roguelike Below rides that very delicate fine line between pure enjoyment and thorough frustration like few games before it. On one hand, the game’s utter lack of guidance forces you to essentially play an extended game of trial and error, which can lead to feelings of overwhelming frustration when you’re facing a seemingly impassable location several hours into your journey. However, on the other, the moments of revelation that follow provide a fantastic sense of accomplishment and spur your desire to push deeper into the foreboding darkness. And while many have fairly compared the game to both Dark Souls and Zelda, among others, Below exists in its own twisted little realm. Keeping a cool head, possessing the willingness and fortitude to delve into the game’s crafting system with little to no instructions or recipes, and developing a desire to explore the unknown are essential to enjoying everything Below has to offer. It’s an unrelenting experience, for sure, but it’s one that eventually takes hold and refuses to let go — for better or worse.
Full disclosure: I’ve yet to complete Below, and I doubt I’ll do so anytime soon. In fact, after 15-plus hours exploring the game’s strange and mysterious island, I feel I’m just now getting a proper handle on the game’s mechanics. It’s no exaggeration when I say that the first few hours were literally spent fumbling around in the dark as I attempted to keep my nameless little hero fed, hydrated, and stocked in torches and arrows. Figuring out how to make soup, fashion arrows, and assemble a torch takes some experimentation, but you’ll soon discover how everything snaps together. Need food? A bottle of water and a few ingredients can do the trick — as long as you have a roaring campfire available to help you prepare it. Lost in the dark without a source of light? A stick, some string, and flammable material will help you along. Having plenty of these items on hand will make your adventure a bit easier, especially when your trusty lantern starts to run low on fuel.
Like many things in Below, your (magical?) lantern acts as both a tool for survival and an object of complete fascination. After arriving on this enigmatic island in the dead of night, you’ll scale a cliff side to find the lantern sitting in the middle of several stone pillars, giving it an almost otherworldly feeling. Not only does it help you carve a path through the darkness of the cave system under your feet, but your lamp also helps you solve puzzles that allow you to continue your quest to unearth the secrets the island keeps close to the vest. At first, you’ll feel the lantern is a blessing, that is, until you realize that fuel initially comes in short supply. Again, figuring out how to keep this important device powered proves difficult, but once you solve that problem, you won’t have any trouble managing your resources so you won’t run out of fuel at the worst possible moment. Keep in mind, however, that you probably will run out at the worst possible moment at some point.
Without light, you will find yourself in some extremely deadly situations in a very short amount of time. Below’s world contains a number of dastardly traps that will make quick work of your hero if you don’t have the proper illumination. And when you’re getting hounded by the denizens of the deep at the same time, trying to avoid a set of fatal spikes can prove very challenging even for the most accomplished of heroes. Again (and I can’t stress this enough), you’ll learn these lessons the hard way: through good, old-fashioned trial and error. Although you might think I’ve spoiled the surprise of stepping on a set of spikes for the very first of time, Below keeps enough weaponry in its arsenal that you’ll have no difficulty finding different ways to die. Just remember to keep your temper in check when you’re forced to start the process all over again, as this is simply a part of the way Below expects you to play it. Trust me when I say it’s worth the effort.
If you’re not a fan of roguelike experiences, Below will ultimately push you to the end of sanity. Spending an hour wandering through this mischevious levels feels great, even when you fumble through a particularly thorny encounter with glowing monsters and find yourself bleeding out. If you’re quick, you can apply a bandage before your health completely drains away or, at least, burn the wound closed with a nearby brazier. However, since the enemies generally move faster than you can swing a sword, you might find yourself surrounded by baddies before you can fight back. At that point, your adventurer bids farewell to the mortal realm, and you’re forced to start all over again with someone new. The worst part: If you didn’t leave behind any items for the next hero, you’ll start with an empty inventory. And given how difficult it is to obtain some materials in the game, you’ll either toss the controller aside and call it night or sally forth with a bit more resolve and experience in your tank. Either way, it can get frustrating without warning, though there’s never a point when the game feels unfair.
Among the things that help you swallow some of these extremely bitter pills are the graphics, which, while somewhat simple, perfectly set the stage for the story Below wants to tell. The tilted, zoomed-out perspective effectively transforms your character into a gnat; even if you’re playing on a large television/computer monitor, his or her presence barely registers on the screen in this dark and dreary world. But it works. That feeling of being a very small fish in an extremely large and very dangerous pond increases tenfold when you venture underground, a place where shadows, fog, and all manner of mysteries await. And while I know someone out there will issue an admittedly well-deserved eye roll as they read this, but Below skillfully taps into the type of untold, unspoken worlds crafted by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson. Instead of dumping reams of exposition in your lap to explain the island you’re exploring, Below opts to show you things — strange and wondrous things — that lead to you believe that this universe has been around for eons, and will probably continue to exist long after the adventure comes to an end. Few games have achieved that level of spine-tingling world-building, and it’s always great when one does.
Below features everything I love about video games: exploration, adventure, enjoyable combat, and puzzles. And while I struggled a bit whenever one of my heroes would inevitably bite the dust, I always felt the urge to jump back in and push deeper into the game’s numerous mysteries. That said, you’ll need to work hard to get any sort of satisfaction from Below, though I will gladly add that it’s rewarding if you approach it with the right frame of mind. You certainly won’t have your hand held at any point during your journey, and discovering new areas and gaining items often come with some very difficult lessons. Sure, you made it five levels down, but you died right before you could figure out how to make it to the sixth. Instead of rage quitting and cursing the developers for making the puzzles so damned difficult, dust yourself off and head back to the island for another go-around. There’s still a lot left for you — and me — to discover.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game. A review copy was provided to us by Capybara Games.
Although it has a tendency to frustrate, both in terms of design and execution, Below offers a compelling adventure set in a mysterious world that's just begging to be explored.