Below Review: Death and Discovery Await

by David Sanchez January 5, 2019 @ 5:33 pm

Reviewed on PC

The fine people at Capybara Games are known experimenters. The studio doesn’t stick to one genre when making games, which is why Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP is so different from Super Time Force. Released at the tail end of 2018, Below marks another shift for Capybara Games. Taking a little influence from The Legend of Zelda and Dark Souls, this isometric survival action-adventure game is both punishing and satisfying. At times it can get a little too punishing, but you shouldn’t let that get in the way of the sheer enjoyment there is to be had with this title.

Below is is decidedly old school. There’s hardly any story here, but in a game like this that relies so much on obscurity and discovery, a plot isn’t all that necessary. You play as an unnamed adventurer who happens to find his or her way onto a mysterious island filled with caves and dungeons to explore. None of this is made clear to you, though. Like I just said, Below is very obscure and very old school in its approach to action-adventure gameplay and relies heavily on giving you a sense of discovery.

When you do figure out where to go first — admittedly, it took me a few minutes — it’s hard not to get caught up on the eagerness and excitement that comes with exploring your first dungeon. The puzzle-solving, the hack-and-slash combat, the resource collection, even just navigating the caves — it’s all pretty cool and fun… until you walk into a spike trap. D’oh!

Be forewarned that Below is a roguelike — just another retro-inspired sensibility — so when you meet an instant, fatal end upon getting spiked, it’s back to the start. You begin anew, with a different explorer to guide through the island. Below does a good job of making it seem as if extended periods of time have passed in between runs. Enemy locations change, there are new traps, and the body of your previous explorer is nothing but skeletal remains.

Speaking of which, you can totally loot that dead dude’s body and get your stuff back. It’s important to use your resources wisely. You’ll want to craft potions and soups, because your character can starve to death if you’re not careful. In addition, you’ll need to stock up on bandages. Sure, the first few hits from an enemy will simply deplete your health bar a bit, but take too much damage and you’ll begin bleeding. If you don’t patch yourself up, you can bleed to death. In fact, you probably will be bleed to death at some point. Again, d’oh!

Strangely, the resource management, crafting, and survival elements of Below are both pros and cons. While the game is fun because of these gameplay mechanics, it can also get a bit stressful at times. This is especially true during later runs when you get much further and then die in cruel and unusual ways. A lot of the time in games like this, you only have yourself to blame, but because there are so many surprise traps tucked away, Below can feel a bit unfair a lot of the time. Not cool.

What is cool, though, is the game’s look and sound, both of which are dark and somber. The foggy landscapes and dark caverns are a sight to see, and because your character is but a speck on a rather large map, the game successfully invokes a lonely atmosphere. The music is also great, with earthy, haunting, droning tunes from Jim Guthrie.

Below is very inviting, but only if you enjoy old school roguelikes. If you’re not into this type of game, this title won’t change your mind. Even if you’re already really into this type of game, the way in which Below mercilessly punishes may put you off just a tad. Even then, it’s a worthwhile adventure, one that will challenge you to explore its mysterious world and carve your own path around that world. That sense of discovery — as punishing and grueling as it may be — is what makes Capybara’s latest a truly unique and enjoyable experience.

Score: 7.5 out of 10

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