Below Review – Welcome to the Heart of Darkness
Below's hand-crafted design is constantly at war with itself and the player, despite the gripping world Capy Games has created.
The very beginning of Capy Games’ (Capy) Below offers a taste of what you’ll come to experience as you venture down into the depths of their rouge-lite dungeon crawler. The camera is pulled way back over a stormy sea; thunder cracking all around as the waves roll. Slowly tracking in, a small boat comes into focus as it sails forward through the storm. After five minutes, the boat makes land and a tiny character hops out. The island and its depths are now open for you to explore.
Below provides an immensely gripping atmosphere with procedurally generated dungeons that reveal just how meticulously hand-crafted it truly is after a few hours of spelunking. The island’s mystery provides little incentive to find out “what lies below” after the notion of randomness is replaced with one of memorization and preparation. What starts out as intentionally obtuse becomes a game that demands you learn, study, and master its rules if you ever hope to make it to the end.
Developed over the course of five years, Capy revealed Below on Microsoft’s E3 stage in 2013. A much brighter game was shown off then, but the core idea has remained upon its release. Players would explore an island and the dungeons beneath it. Every time the player dies, the room layout changes and they’ll have to try and make it back to their previous body. This rouge-lite concept offers the potential for countless replayability.
Below starts out with this feeling of possibility around every corner. The layout of each floor is new and the rooms are brimming with secrets to discover. I would always explore every room’s nooks and crannies before going down to the next floor. I’d find hidden rooms behind waterfalls and tiny switches that would open doors. The thrill of exploration was gripping.
This was amplified by Below not giving you any direction or help. The only predominant text in the game is the floor number as you enter a new area, the crafting menu, and the pause menu. I figured out how to properly swap weapons by checking out the controls in the options. This utter lack of clear, decisive help lends excitement in the game’s opening hours.
Once you die for the first time though, the excitement and thrill begin to fade. Not right away, but the erosion process begins. Per the nature of rogue-like games, you start off with nothing except the sword on your back and a full stomach. If you can get back to your most recent corpse without dying, you may loot it for all you were carrying before. It’s a slightly morbid mechanic, but a great motivator to push on.
And push on you do. As you enter the first floor, you’ll notice the room layout has changed. The floor’s whole room order gives off a sense of déjà vu though. You make it back down to Floor 2 and loot your old body before trekking down to Floor 3, where you get stabbed to death by a monster. You try again, retreading the same ground, but you get swarmed on Floor 2 and the body on Floor 3 vanishes. All that loot is gone and you spawn back on the beach. Where this grind really crushes you is down 20 floors.
Capy tried to mitigate this harsh blow by implementing shortcuts to be discovered and the ability to teleport one time to a campfire you paid 25x light crystals at. Shortcuts offer a sweet sense of relief when found. They are tangible signs of progress in your descent while offering a reprieve from the downward trudge. These shortcuts also fall into a somewhat vicious design circle.
The very presence of a shortcut encourages their use to make it deeper into the dungeon. Accessed from the starting beach, they perform as advertised, but once I skipped down to the lower floors I realized how ill-prepared I was with just a sword, shield, and bottle. So I’d have to grind to get more of the better supplies, mostly food that was usually on the lower numbered floors. Grinding uses up my little character’s energy, meaning I have to use the supplies I was gathering to help stay alive. Before too long, I would be deciding between forgoing the grind or pass up recovering my corpse.
Over time, I memorized the guaranteed spawns on the surface of the island and would hope I got lucky meat drops from killing animals. I memorized a route to run every spawn that involved running and swimming over three different, but connected areas to get enough goodies to cook up some stew at a campfire before I’d take the shortcut I needed to get back as low as I could go.
Sometimes I’d spend a few characters’ lives grinding and stashing supplies in a special area called the Pocket. It’s a safe haven accessed by falling asleep at fires. Items, food, and weapons may be stashed here for future adventurers, but at the cost of dying over and over to build up the supply. It’s effective, but strips down the fun by a sense of constant preparation.
The trade-off created by shortcuts can lead to a mixed bag of emotions. Below often reminded me of a horror game. Surrounded by darkness or suddenly faced with a new enemy, Below expertly makes its gameplay feel tense and crucial. Burn a torch or use the lantern to light a small circle around your character to get a little sense of your surroundings. Enemies have their patterns and weaknesses for you to observe and learn on the fly when you first encounter them. Exploring uncharted floors reminded me of creeping through the house in Resident Evil VII, dreading whatever may be behind the next door. Urgency takes over pre-planned strategy in the darkness.
Mixed in with the fear I found a rush of satisfaction when a challenge was overcome. When I found a nifty shortcut that skipped 10 floors or a hidden chest when I needed items the most or I found a piece of food right before my hunger meter depleted. It’s the very nature of a suspense-driven piece of entertainment—tension and release. It’s an effective emotion when elicited, driving me to push onward.
What often trumped the rush was a parallel build-up of frustration. With the game’s lack of communication, it naturally encourages you to experiment and learn the rules of the island. For example, you’ll find out quickly that your little character needs to eat to last any significant amount of time exploring. The way food is gathered in ample supply isn’t cut and dry though. Vegetables found in the earth are easy enough, but meat is more random. Meat is the key to heartier stews that provide more health. You have to kill animals for meat. Slice up a fox and you may or may not get the option to loot the corpse. Sometimes you get meat and leather; other times you’ll score just leather or meat. You can even score intestines, a completely different form of food from the fox. You could also get absolutely nothing. Changing the weapon or the kill method didn’t seem to impact drops. RNG was the sole apparent god for the diet. This left me feeling like my fate was in the hands of luck rather than my skills improving.
Some rules feel like a child making up the rules to a game on the fly. On frozen floors of the dungeon, the only way to stay warm is by standing next to a fire and filling up the respective meter. Carrying a burning torch has no effect. You could freeze to death with a fire in your hands. Certain elements in an environment may kill an enemy one time and not the next. Below imparts a feeling of randomness more than learning the rules and triumphing over them.
When you do learn the rules and prove their consistency, you do feel like you are getting better though. I feel way more proficient exploring the dungeons than my opening hours. Even on the toughest floors after 19 hours, I’ve discovered better ways to navigate dungeons with the toughest monsters.
Below’s strongest element is its gripping visual and sound design. While the gameplay may feel like a round of tug-o-war, the art direction of Below constantly pulls and pulls you in. From the neverending storm above to buried civilizations to spoiler territory, Below’s world does not let go. It is as unrelenting as the game’s mechanics. Choices like having a bokeh effect surround your character, leaving the room slightly out of focus, encouraged me to explore the edges. The drawn-out camera removes intimacy and creates dread. Fused with the soundtrack by Jim Guthrie (which I’m listening to as I write this review) and the sound design of the dungeons, Below‘s world is rich with complimenting intricacies. I soaked in every raindrop and clap of thunder as I explored again and again. Below is a masterclass in art direction.
Unfortunately, the only intrusion to the world of Below is technical difficulties. The game frequently stuttered for me, dropping the framerate noticeably. This usually happened in the larger areas on the surface or with 12+ enemies on screen. What took me out of the game and the drive to plunge deeper was just how often Below crashed on me. As the game was loading up a new character after a death, it would crash and kick me to the dashboard on my original Xbox One. It never crashed during a run (thank God), but having it kick me 10+ times in between runs felt like a sign to put the controller down and stop exploring for the time being. There was a patch released during my playtime since launch, but it did not mitigate these issues.
Below is a game I struggled with. It felt like it was fighting me the whole way during my review process. As frustrated as I got (just ask my wife Abby or our Review’s Editor Logan Moore), I kept pushing onward. Partly for this review itself, but more so for myself. I wanted to give up. I wanted to quit. I grinded. I died 25+ times. I kept going at Logan’s encouragement and request. I have immense respect for Capy sticking so close to their guns, even at the chance of pushing new players away. There is nugget after nugget of truly exciting, invigorating game design to be found in the depths, but the darkness closes in far too often for them to truly shine their light.