With Below, developer Capy games has drastically deviated from the bright happiness of its previous efforts Super Time Force and Critter Crunch. Instead, Below is more in line with the mood of Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery, though dropping the 16-bit art style for something much more modern.
Their tough gameplay is retained from STF, though the less frenetic action allows the player to focus on the environment, which is the greatest threat to your life.
Below is another rogue-like game, following the player character as you make your way farther and farther into the depths of an island you washed up on. The caves are full of beasts and traps that desire to end your life, from spiked panels, trip wires, and sporadically moving enemies. You start out with only a sword and shield, though can obtain more weapons from others who passed before your arrival.
The landscape is dark, but not in a boring and grey way. The middle section of the island has black monoliths that call back to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and stand beckoning me to figure out their meaning and purpose. The atmosphere can be oppressing, especially within the claustrophobic underground.
Your body is quite fragile, made up of a single heart that will slowly deplete after you are damaged. The only way to cease the loss of life is to find a band aid to patch up the bleeding. Bandages are a valuable resource and scarce, so avoiding damage and always engaging with the shield up and forward is essential. Combat is secondary to exploration in Below however. Each level you wander slowly opens up the fog of mystery engulfing it, whether from the light of your lamp or torch, which can be refilled by gems or crafting respectively.
Don’t expect to be reading through lists of crafting recipes, as items need to be mixed and matched in random ways to create something new and clear out some of your limited inventory. Some make sense, such as three rods combining to form a higher tier version. However some other items I was never able to combine successfully, which forced me to either drop them entirely, or allow them to take up space for later use.
The dark caverns you explore have hidden areas, and winding paths that can sometimes lead to dead ends. Death can come quickly, especially when you accidentally dodge backwards into a spiked floor space.
Combat can be a bit simplistic, though it fits the aesthetic of the over world. Enemies will glow white when they are about to strike, and you can either preemptively swing at them or wait until they finish to retaliate. Timing is key, as tougher enemy types will dodge backwards depending on when you attack.
While I don’t generally enjoy rogue-likes for their tendency to eliminate a lot of progress upon death, I still liked what Below was doing to the general formula.
I didn’t die during my demo, though it was more thanks to my methodical, slow progression than skill. Below rewards that, unlike others in the genre that push players to decrease their run time and reaction speed to threats. What we will be working towards as we dive deeper and deeper into the island remains to be seen, but Capy is a skilled developer and knows how to craft rewarding experiences.