Below Review: Stare into the Abyss
You can tell almost immediately that Below is a different kind of game than what you are used to. The intro is dark and deliberately slow, zooming in on your tiny ship as it sails across a massive, black ocean. Multiple times, I found myself wondering if I was supposed to take up the controls yet.
Nope. Not yet.
Everything about Below is designed to make you feel uncomfortable - in a good way - the sound design is dark and foreboding, your character is tiny on the screen, and everything is dark and obscured. It doesn’t all work, but developer Capybara swung for the fences with this one, and it will definitely be the game for that audience. Let’s dig a little deeper and see what makes Below tick.
It Stares Back Into You
Below is sort of the “Doom Metal” of video games. It’s daunting, unapologetic, and dark as all hell. In an interview with Newsweek, developer Kris Piotrowski even recommended his ideal way to sit down to play: “It's certainly a game I would recommend playing in the middle of the night between 12 and 4 a.m., when you're feeling at your worst. That's what the game is for. Alone, lights off, headphones on, hit a huge bong rip and start the game.”
That’s the mindset the developers encourage you to have when tackling Below.
Below is a top-down survival roguelike, apparently drawing inspiration from titles like The Legend of Zelda and Dark Souls. It deliberately keeps you in the dark about what is happening and what you can do, encouraging a level of experimentation and exploration. Sometimes, you will find new strategies, successes, and shortcuts through this experimentation.
Other times, it will start a downhill slide that gets you killed.
It doesn’t seem like it early on, but Below is going to kill you in some unfair ways. That’s the nature of the types of games that it emulates. Luckily, it does a pretty good job of feeling like something you can generally fix in a later run.
We Have to Go Deeper
Almost immediately, you will be able to pick up the mood and style that Below is shooting for. It looks and sounds great. Your character is dwarfed by the environment that surrounds them. Shadows loom and dance due to dancing firelight. An ominous soundtrack sits underneath everything. It’s a game that makes you feel like you’re all on your own against a massive enemy - without any hint that there is any such massive enemy.
I hate to continue comparing it to Dark Souls, but it does instill the same sense of both panic and accomplishment that From Software’s legendary series does. That last, desperate push when you’re out of resources, out of health, and out of light on a given floor. That moment when a seemingly unstoppable horde of enemies is perfectly dispatched. That absolute rush of relief when you find one of the checkpoint campfires for you to sit down at and take stock of things. Below makes you feel proud of your in game accomplishments, and encourages risks - even though sometimes those big risks will get you killed.
Designing a Better Mousetrap
Another side effect of Below choosing not to hold your hand comes will change your approaches to survival. Combat in Below is simplistic, but it works. You have a few different weapons you can choose from, as well as a dodge, shield, and a few traps at your disposal. You never know which method of combat will be most effective, but there are situations for them all. This means you need to learn all the tricks at your disposal in order to ensure your chances of survival.
There is also a crafting system in place, because of course there is. This is a 2018 game release, after all. It pretty much goes as you would expect, but this was one area of the game that I could have done without.
I appreciate the game encouraging you to try out combinations to see what they create, but I do wish there was an in game way to keep track of “this combination makes this item.” I don’t want to have to keep a journal on my desk to remember how to make bandages in a video game - or consult a wiki every time. In other news, check out our beginner’s guide to Below, which includes several crafting recipes!
Also, your inventory is too darn small. Knowing what you should carry with you and what you should leave in the Pocket - Below’s home base/storage shed - caused undue stress and a few more deaths than I would have liked.
There’s a certain, intangible… something with Below that is tough to put into words. This is where, clearly, all the delays (of which there were a lot) were used effectively. There is a level of design at work here where it feels like nearly everything in the game serves some greater purpose. This is a gamer’s game - it is certainly not going to be for everyone.
For those who do want a hardcore challenge, Below is a great pick up. If you’re tired of tacked on tutorials or games that will beat the level for you if you fail too many times, Below is going to be right up your alley. It’s a strong realization of the developer’s intent, and it’s also a game that can entrance you and suck you in for hours on end. Ideally, the hours of midnight through 4 a.m. Headphones and bong not included.
[Note: The developer provided a copy of Below for the purpose of this review]