It has been a while since we first witnessed Below, at E3 2013.
At the time, it was touted as a brutally difficult action adventure with roguelike elements. This premise got many players excited, including me, but who could’ve thought that Below would then be stuck in development for years. Fast forward half a decade later and Below has finally arrived on the Xbox storefront. While it seems to have delivered on most of its gameplay selling points, whether or not the world is worth exploring, is an entirely different question.
Following a lengthy introductory cutscene, the main hero arrives at the coast of a solitary island. It’s not explained for what purpose and no context to the plot is given. The surrounding world is huge in comparison to the hero and the camera perspective further accentuates this size disparity. The island itself is bleak – shrouded in mystery – and very similar in tone to Team Ico games of yore. Bright colours are seldom found in Below and mostly generated by the flame of a torch. Music greatly contributes to the overall atmosphere; it’s ominously unsettling. It invokes a sense of hopelessness and the futility of one’s struggle right from the start. With no tutorials or a specific direction, you’re left to figure out where to go, as well as how to fight and survive, all by yourself.
It doesn’t take long to gain a grasp on basic mechanics and this initial area provides a threat-free locale to do so. After some curiosity-filled exploration, you will locate a valuable lantern, and soon enough, stumble upon the familiar mountain fissure. This fissure leads into the first dungeon: the first among many. Dungeons start out as dark underground caves littered with various traps, monsters and local wildlife. Additionally, unexplored segments are covered by a fog of war, further diminishing visibility. Some traps simply make you trip over, while others can kill your character in an instant. The previously mentioned lantern can provide a constant light source for easily discovering these contraptions, and can be powered by bits of light collected from fallen enemies. Makeshift torches can also be used, but they burn out fairly quickly.
To progress, you must find a floor key and then use it on a descending staircase. Uppermost rooms are simple and don’t contain too many threats, but dungeons grow in complexity as you descend. Underground, resources like hunger, body temperature, and water, have to be managed. With such an emphasis on survival, it feels like almost every game nowadays wants you to become Bear Grylls. Food can be obtained via multiple sources: you can pull a turnip right from the ground or loot a skinned animal. I always felt bad for the poor foxes; snakes or bats – not so much. Water is even easier to collect and is readily available from natural sources, such as simple puddles or creeks. Thirst can be quenched right then and there, but the refreshing H2O can also be stored in an empty container for later use. The cold, on the contrary, doesn’t become an issue until much later and can be temporarily negated by lighting torches within the icy locales.
Campfires can be located at certain intervals: often between floors. Weirdly enough, they are not checkpoints but can be activated with light bits to provide a single return in case of a failure. They also allow you to cook food, prepare various elixirs and, eventually, access the so-called Pocket. This is a remote cave which offers storage for collected items and equipment, and can also be utilised by other characters. But wait: “other characters”?
After a few floors, you will likely come to realise that Below is punishingly difficult, and its learning curve – unfairly steep. Some traps are set up just out of sight, while certain enemies can seem impenetrable or even cause bleeding. If wounds are not bandaged up promptly, then the hero might gradually die. This world wants to make sure that you fail a lot, learn from it, and accept the challenge once again. It doesn’t pertain to just combat and exploration, either, as some edible items can be poisonous to your character’s well being.
If your current hero drops in battle or falls prey to one of the plentiful traps, then you take control of a new hero who arrives at the island. Moreover, the remains of the previous hero can be found at the spot where he met his demise, and his loot can be recovered. If, for instance, a character died on a set of spikes, then his limp body will be found impaled on the same set of spikes. Some corpses can be gutted and the intestines cooked. Now there’s some camaraderie for you.
No venture into the dungeon is without its fair share of battles. The hero is equipped with a sword and shield combo as well as a bow. These can be switched swiftly with a press of a button and additional weapons – like a spear – can be discovered as you progress. Each weapon offers a certain utility in combat, but only two types can be carried at any given time. For instance, the bow is obviously great for disposing of an enemy from a distance, especially with explosive arrows. A spear, on the other hand, can also be used to catch fish in a pond and food is often a scarce resource. It then becomes a choice of which utility you prefer to prioritize.
Combat isn’t complex, but victories don’t come easy. When it comes to actual combat instances, enemies range from shadowy beings surrounded by red crystals, to shadowy beings surrounded by… a larger amount of red crystals. Seriously, there doesn’t seem to be much variety to foes and with the camera being so far away, it’s often hard to tell exactly what they are. Smaller ones can be destroyed with a single hit, while bigger guys might require a bash with a shield to break their defence.
As challenging as combat in Below can be, it doesn’t feel rewarding. There are no experience points to earn, no skills to develop, and enemies don’t drop anything aside from the small bits of light. I didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment for defeating tougher foes and smaller enemies were only an issue in greater packs.
Environments in Below are generated randomly, but not quite in a way that one might expect. While certain locations – particularly outdoor environs – remain the same at all times, dungeons change slightly every time a character dies. This means that, unless a camp has been activated, you may have to traverse the dungeon from scratch and find the stairs again. This isn’t fun at all and often takes away the sense of progression from the game. Going through the same environments and fighting the same enemies, which have respawned, becomes a chore and increasingly discouraging with each failed attempt. Thankfully, this is somewhat countered by various unlockable shortcuts which often allow you to skip multiple floors of repeated exploration.
Below can be a satisfying roguelike experience for anyone who is willing to persevere through its steep learning curve and difficulty. For others, the journey might come to a close after only a few failed attempts. There’s an enthralling atmosphere to the game, supplemented by an equally wonderful musical score. It’s nice to look at – especially when it comes to lighting – and feels great, too. The learning curve, however, is too steep, and too unforgiving. Combat is difficult, as was promised, but monotonous enemies and unrewarding battles lead to a largely stale experience.
If you have Xbox Game Pass and are not scared away by the potential struggles ahead, then Below might be worth a try. At a somewhat high asking price of £19.99 though, you may wish to consider other, better options.