Below came out today on Xbox One and PC, after five years in development. I’ve spent about five hours with the game. Despite going in with very few expectations, the game still managed to defy them.
First revealed at E3 2013, Capybara Games’ minimalist roguelike dungeon crawler has been in development for over five years, demoed at several trade-shows, and delayed time and again. Every time I saw new footage being shown, a vague picture of what the moody, Zelda-inspired indie game would be slowly took shape in my mind.
Yesterday, I finally started playing the finished game. After spending much of that time fumbling through its mysterious world with hardly a clue as to what I should be doing, a new picture has emerged. It’s one of a game whose at times impenetrable mysteries and evocative but dread-filled world don’t seem to suffer from the march of time since they were first teased or the other seemingly similar games that were released in the interim.
I arrived on a dark beach alone, climbed up the rockface of a small cliff and picked up a lantern, which allowed me to unlock the entrance to a cave by shining some light on it. From there I descended deeper and deeper, killing rodents when I could find them to stay fed and drinking water from my growing collection of bottles. I explored every room I could, including one that led me to the back of the island, where a graveyard ships lay broken in a small bay.
Throughout all of this I slowly learned things. You can craft items in your inventory, such as fashioning embers, sticks, and string into torches. Pieces of food can be combined in bottles and cooked into potions at campfires. Most importantly, glowing red monsters drop glowing bits when they die that you can collect and use to fuel your lantern. The lantern itself helps light the game’s otherwise dark rooms and also highlights when a trap is nearby. It’s also the key to unlocking hidden passages that allow you to descend deeper into the game’s labyrinth. I know this because I’ve done this, but even now I couldn’t explain to you how or why.
I’ve probably spent about half of my time with the game so far retracing my steps and shining my lantern on everything I can find. I even once starved myself to death hoping that might release some new thread for my mind to tug on. Dying resets your map and lets you start exploring the island again as a new traveler. Some important rooms remain mostly the same while others, and the patterns connecting them, change. It’s one of the ways the game makes repeatedly stumbling around in the dark having no clue what you’re supposed to be looking for feel tolerable.
Below holds everything back: explanations, clues, objectives. When you hit a dead end it’s always clear you must have missed something on the way there, and your limited actions combined with the importance of the lantern help keep the number of possible things you should try doing differently from feeling overwhelming or futile. Below’s world is far from inviting, despite all of its intimately rendered beauty, and its obstinately esoteric presentation might turn some players off.Like Limbo or Fez, Below tells you nothing and instead tries to use the rules of its world to guide the player’s flailing attempts. I already feel like I’ve run a marathon just trying to unlock the the game’s third level down.
Here are some other thoughts:
- The game is as gorgeous as it seemed like it would be. Every aesthetic piece, from the blades of grass flicking in the wind to composer Jim Guthrie’s exquisite, smouldering synth soundtrack fits together seamlessly.
- While its use of shapes and color are sparing, Below’s uses a subtle interplay of light and shadow, soft focus and hard focus, and a thick, film grain after-effect to add a breathtaking amount of visual depth to every room.
- The game strikes a delicate balance between a non-intrusive HUD that only displays equipment, health, and inventory when you bring it up and still using the slightest of sparkles and symbols to indicate things that can be interacted with. The effect is one that keeps you cognizant of the gameplay elements at work without constantly screaming that you’re playing a game.
- You can never have enough food or torches.
- Controlling Below feels good. Swinging a sword, bringing up a shield, or dashing back from incoming danger are all responsive and fluid. But these actions are still slow enough that combat in Below feels more like a means of survival than the crux of its progression.
- Nothing that shows up in Below feels like it was put there by chance, even if some of it was. I’ve combed through every detail in a room looking for some clue about how to unlock a hidden passage, and the game rewards this behavior frequently enough that it’s led me to play the game with more consistent attention and alertness than anything else I’ve touched this year.
- It’s dangerous to go alone, but in Below you have no choice.