Below Review: A Dark, Twisted Journey

Below is a beautiful roguelike that nails its minimalist aesthetic, but fails in terms of gameplay. Here's our review...

Release Date: December 14, 2018Platform: PC (reviewed), XBODeveloper: Capybara GamesPublisher: Capybara GamesGenre: Action-adventure Roguelike

As you sink deeper and deeper into Capybara Games’ moody roguelike Below, two things become crystal clear: it’s an atmospheric, hauntingly beautiful experience, and it’s also a study in frustration and tedium, a prime example of how just a few imbalances in design can mean the difference between a great game and an unremarkable one.

In its early hours, the game is marvelous. It opens with a mesmerizingly long intro, the camera making a slow descent from the clouds in a stormy, moonlit sky until we see a teeny-tiny boat come onto the shores of a mysterious island, composer Jim Guthrie’s dark, intoxicating synth score setting the tone for the dangerous journey that lies ahead (if you’re familiar with the long, eerie opening scene from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, it feels a lot like that). All of the game’s mechanics–from crafting, to combat, to exploration–are discovered as you delve into the depths of the islands underground caves and dungeons, with no tutorials to guide you. These first few hours of trial and error and experimentation are exhilarating and, coupled with the top-notch presentation, make for a truly memorable experience.

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The game sinks its hooks in deep early on but quickly loses its grip as the tedium of the main gameplay loop sets in. Working your way down into the island’s innards room by room, fending off monsters and gathering resources is great fun until you realize that when you die, you essentially begin the adventure all over again as a new intrepid spelunker and must work your way back to the spot where you last bit the dust to reclaim all of your loot and continue where you left off. This is all well and good during the first chunk of the game when working your way back doesn’t take a ton of time, and if you have a proclivity for these kinds of high-stakes, perma-death games, that helps a lot. But as the game wears on and retracing your steps becomes a lengthy chore, it’s hard not to feel like your time is being wasted.

The beauty of roguelikes and games like Dark Souls is that death is a gift, a learning experience that helps you sharpen your skills. Sure, you lose your loot and lose some ground, but now you’re smarter, quicker, and have a tighter grasp on the ins and outs of the game. This progress isn’t tracked via experience points or stats, but you can feel it in your bones–I failed, but I’m a better player now and I won’t make that mistake again. It’s a brilliant idea that spawned a lot of very popular games, but what Below’s take on the concept is missing is the ability to make the player feel a consistent, pervasive sense of self-improvement. You do gain a better understanding of how to survive the game’s unforgiving deep dungeons and how to best navigate in and around the various hazards and puzzles, but this sensation isn’t compelling or addictive enough to justify all of the extra time you’ll spend running the game’s proverbial hamster wheel.

Dying in Below is incredibly disheartening and, quite frankly, annoying, because often times, a little mistake like stepping on a spike trap can cost you 30-plus minutes of grinding through areas you’ve seen a million times, collecting resources and crafting, just to make it back to your corpse, skewered on that damned trap. And then you’ll take two steps and die on another trap a few seconds later, forcing you to start over again. The price of death is far too high and the rewards are too low–most of the time, you’ll learn little to nothing working your way back to where you died, and it kind of makes you wonder why you’re playing the game at all. You’ll find shortcuts that allow you to skip down a few levels if you choose, but it’s far more advantageous to mine the early rooms for resources so that you’re thoroughly prepared to survive on your next run.

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What’s good is that, other than this major design flaw, the gameplay is generally rock-solid. Combat is tight and fluid and feels like playing the early, top-down Zelda games but with more nimble movement. Wielding a sword and dashing around your enemies as you slash away, defending with your shield as you place well-timed stabs into enemies’ hearts, feels quite natural, and shooting enemies from afar isn’t only precise and responsive, but is very often a more viable offensive strategy than melee combat. Sometimes aiming with the bow can feel a little too slippery, but only a little.

The only issue here is that the combat isn’t deep enough to counterbalance the monotony of the permadeath mechanic. Sussing out enemy attack patterns and felling hordes of spiders and mummies can be engaging and fun, but the dullness of having to work your way back through the same old rooms over and over again is such a downer that it’s hard to be truly thrilled by anything else the game has to offer, including its myriad secret items, rooms, and paths.

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Compounding the issue is the game’s survival mechanic, which has you constantly keeping an eye on your character’s warmth, thirst, and hunger. The latter is the cause of a world of frustration because your character seems to always be starving, which puts you in a perpetual race against the clock to find munchies–bats, critters, spuds, whatever you can find. This constant scramble for food effectively dampens the game’s sense of discovery. Some of the deeper levels are cool as hell to look at, but because you’ll no doubt be on the brink of starvation when you find them, you won’t have any time to truly soak in the environments and atmosphere.

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This is incredibly bothersome since the art and sound design are the game’s greatest strengths and you’re rarely afforded a respite to take it all in at your own pace. Still, the game’s presentation is extraordinary. The sense of scale is overwhelming–your character isn’t but a spec on the screen, engulfed by an ominous, expansive environment shrouded in a cold mist. The feeling of loneliness and insignificance compared to the gigantic, demonic world around you is so palpable and powerful that it sometimes stirred up real thoughts of existential woe in me, which is just about the highest compliment I can give to the game’s presentation. And the deeper you plumb into the abyss, the more deliciously bizarre the visuals get: you’ll explore twinkling ice caverns, ruined underground cities, and even levels that seem to live and breathe and undulate around you. The game employs tilt-shift masterfully, making the world seem bigger and more menacing than it actually is, and the lighting is just as impressive, focusing on the evocative interplay between light and dark.

The sound design is enveloping and terrifying and imbues the visuals with a sense of depth and space that no 3D glasses or VR headset could ever duplicate. The soundscapes Capybara has created here are wide and deep, and Guthrie’s melancholy score is impeccable, spooking you out when it needs to and putting you at ease when you’re sat by a campfire for a crafting session. Typically, sound design takes a backseat to visuals, but in this game, it’d be damn near impossible not to appreciate just how much the sound defines the experience.

There’s a twisted beauty to games that aren’t constantly concerned with entertaining you or keeping you engaged with spectacular set pieces, and Below certainly stays faithful to that philosophy, to its credit. It presents a challenge that’s uncompromising and undeniably hardcore, but the experience isn’t cohesive or sophisticated enough to keep me yearning to come back for more. Below too often feels like a burden, even for those who typically don’t mind the grind.

Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.

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2.5 out of 5