Below review: Buried treasure

Minimalism is king in Below's design and players will have to overcome a lack of information to reach the deepest treasures the game holds.

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Below is a stark shift from Capy Games' usual more jubilant design like what is seen in their more recent games. OK K.O.! and Super Time Force are energetic and comical, but Below embraces a slow, methodical trek through dark corners that get darker as the player goes further in.

While different from the developer’s previous games, Below isn’t far flung from the many rogue-likes that fill out the gaming industry. Its sharp art will draw many eyes, but there are some design elements that will keep all but the most hardened players from finding the best Below has to offer.


Which way is down?

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Below aligns itself with hardcore survival RPGs and, as such, limits the amount of information that it spoon feeds you. The rhythm of the game is repetitive, but on purpose and not in a bad way. I worked my way down methodically a few levels, took note of what resources were and were not available, and tried to plot further travel out until I pushed the limits and died. Then, I'd work my way back to my body in a new, randomly-generated path and do it all over again, planning as much as I could for those return trips.

The combat is what you'd expect from the genre, largely leaning on a sword/shield combo and dodge. There's a bow that can be used in combat or to unlock access to areas and there are additional weapons, helmets, and armor that can be found throughout Below's levels. The enemy strategies start off simple, but start to vary wildly the deeper you go. The slow and safe pace I started with ended up becoming a hindrance near the bottom.

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The campfires in Below are a crucial tool with regards to your progress. As a matter of fact, not using them correctly can set you incredibly far back in your journey, especially if you die. At a certain point, I unlocked a safe for storage at Campfires and the "Pocket", which is a isolated space for additional storage. Navigating Below required me to plan out how I'd access each one of these Campfires and what I'd store and when. The idea is that you're definitely going to die. So, when you do, you want to have a storage of items that make it easier to get back to your body.

Unfortunately, the game doesn't do a great job of explaining how any of these things work. The symbols when you pull up the campfire menu aren't self-explanatory and the crafting system, which will make or break you as you dive further, doesn't feature items with descriptions that make it plain that they could or should be put together. Everything must be approached with trial and error and that was a frustrating turn off early on.

Caress the senses

Overall, Below’s art and audio are incredibly pleasing to the eyes and ears. The art style consistently has duller tones, matching the game’s overall mood, but this allows for the game to play with light very well. The lantern is the most precious resource in the game (can’t progress deeper into the caves without it, actually) and it becomes increasingly important in the furthest depths as the shadows themselves start to attack.

There are flares and torches to help when I’m either low on the fuel for the lantern or I’ve lost it by dying and I’m working my way back down to retrieve it, but these items aren’t nearly as efficient as the lantern. For instance, there are red lines for traps that are illuminated clearly by the lanterns glow from a solid distance, but the torch doesn’t help much in that regard. Without any light source at all, it was just a matter of time before I was killed unless I slowed my pace to a complete crawl. In some levels, slowing down is not even an option.

Much like the art, sound design in Below was approached in a minimalist fashion. The music is solid yet subtle, some areas forgoing music altogether, accenting the majority of Below’s adventure. In its most harrowing moments further down, the music gets outright creepy. If you want to mix things up when you’re throwing a little Halloween gathering, Below’s score will do the trick.

Down under

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Safe spaces in Below's procedurally generated caves are few and very far between and the game’s survival mechanics forced me to memorize where certain types of resources are dense and patiently work my way forward while strategically plotting my retreat if needed.

While working my way through this harrowing experience, I took in some of my surroundings and how a world like this came to be. This dire situation reflected in the game's repetitive pattern of explore-die-retrieve-explore again matches what I took away from the game's narrative, but details to flesh out my ideas weren't explicitly offered up. Like the rest of the game's elements, Below told me a story with minimal information and I had to interpret the game's world and reveals my own way. No spoilers, but this isn't a jolly tale.

Conclusion

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Below has a lot of things going for it artistically and that will help it to stand out from a growing library of rogue-likes, but it does struggle beyond its aesthetics. Some games attempt to tell a story and explain mechanics visually. The world in Below is more ambiguous than it is interesting, sadly. Some things can be discerned from exploration, but the game’s mechanics shouldn’t be coated in that same ambiguity. Below would have been better served with either clarity for the crafting and campfire system or simpler objects to work with so it’d only take a bit of logic to figure out, as opposed to leaning entirely on trial and error.

There’s a fun and challenging experience down in the depths of Below, especially in the very lowest levels. Unfortunately, the cumbersome design will turn players away and keep the game’s treasures hidden forever.


This review is based on a PC code provided by the game’s publisher. Below is available now for $24.99 and can be played on PC and Xbox One.

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Review for
Below
6
Pros
  • Wonderful art and sound design
  • Challenging gameplay that rewards strategic inventory management
Cons
  • Confusing crafting system
  • Lack of clear communication on how some things work
  • Dull enemy design at times
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