Developer: Capybara Games
Publisher: Capybara Games
Rating: T for Teen
BELOW is a roguelike action-adventure game that puts players in the role of an unnamed adventurer who lands on a mysterious island with a multi-level cavern beneath it. Players will have to use their wits and weapons to survive the randomly generated rooms and unlock all the secrets the island has to offer. The only question is: after an almost 6-year wait, will it be worth it?
Violence/Death: Players will have to fight off creatures in many of the rooms in BELOW. Players can die from a variety of forces or sources including said creatures, traps, starvation, and exposure, just to name a few. Death is sometimes accompanied by a small splash of blood. When players come across their previous adventurer’s corpse, it’s only a skeleton. Players can also loot the skeleton.
BELOW was originally announced at E3 in 2013, then put on indefinite hold in 2016 while Capybara gave it the polish it needed. Usually the longer you have to wait for the game to come out after it’s been announced the worse it is (e.g. Duke Nukem Forever), but this is a rare occasion where I’m glad for the wait so they could get it right.
In a lot of games, you get some sort of setup, or something to read or tips on the loading screen. BELOW doesn’t hold your hand like this in any way. The first time I saw text on screen was when I pulled up my inventory about 5 minutes in. Other than those labels that tell you what different items are, the game doesn’t explain, suggest, hint or otherwise help you at all. There is a crafting and cooking mechanic where you combine different items at a campfire in order to make food or new weapons or items, but only through trial and error will you find out how to make things. And once you do, you’ll want to remember those recipes because the game won’t do it for you.
Speaking of campfires, they serve as your hubs to do different things. Without spoiling too much, you can save and cook or craft there, as well as a couple other things that have to be unlocked while progressing through the game’s levels. But you have to use them wisely, because once an adventurer has used a campfire, it won’t be available again in their life. You can tell the difference between a fresh and used campsite by the state of the wood—if it is burnt and collapsed in, it’s been used already.
Progress in BELOW can be measured by how far you’ve made it into the depths of the cavern, and while many players have gotten much farther than myself, I was proud of the progress I made because each time I clawed my way to a new level or discovery it felt like I earned it, and like I was getting closer to finding out some answers to the multitude of questions I had.
BELOW is the kind of game where your experience is going to be the best teacher and the best reward. You won’t find a new sword every 5 minutes like in Diablo, but every time you die or something goes badly you should be able to at the very least say, “Well now I know to never do THAT again.” For example, after I ran out of power for my lantern and used up my last torch, I was forced to run around in the dark, leading to my first adventurer’s death by floor trap. After I resolved to never go around in the dark, I used up all my torches before an ice level, which lead to my adventurer freezing to death. I made sure to not let either happen ever again.
Capybara has made a game that is great for players who want to discover things on their own and write their own legend. Without any specific story on the front end, it’s up to players to find reasons behind the slow stream of adventurers willing to follow in their ancestor’s/friend’s/competitor’s/neighbor’s footsteps to the foreboding and deadly island. This can be a huge plus for some, and a detriment for others, to be sure. You won’t find the story laid out in scrolling text or explained via voiceover here. Another interesting choice is the pulled back camera, making your adventurer feel small and weak compared to the usual fantasy video game character trope.
The hardest part for me was managing my adventurers’ food, water, and cold health bars. If any one of them bottoms out it will start to chip away at your main health bar, until you meet the need or die from starvation, dehydration, or exposure. On the plus side, every time you do a corpse run you get two or more new bottles to fill with water or make food in. I didn’t find any other way to get new bottles on the island. In fact, that underscores what I’m trying to say: with such realistic needs for the tiny adventurer, and the emphasis on exploration, I was surprised to find resources so limited. Once you find a certain weapon you can hunt for fish in shallow water, but even then you need other ingredients to make soup or other meals, and once you’ve looted a certain area, those items do not respawn. On the one hand you can argue that it forces players to press forward, but I kept wanting to explore every nook and cranny, especially on the rare occasions that I got to come up for fresh air. To its credit, the game has checkpoints you can find that, once unlocked, provide quicker access to the lower levels for you or your next adventurer. But I still found myself desperately looking for food on more than one occasion.
BELOW does reward brave and cautious adventurers, and the moments of discovery are pretty amazing, but some players may find the pull of the island doesn’t quite match the gravity of those victories. You have to go in knowing you’re in for a Dark Souls-like indie game that is not afraid to kill you in the first level just to get you to learn a lesson. Overall I think BELOW will resonate with many—but not all—of the players looking for a new roguelike game.
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