Platform: Xbox One
Below Preview - E3 2018
We delve into the darkness of this minimalist adventure game
At a typical E3, the show floor is filled with hustle and bustle, and in the middle of that there are a few brave souls who are manning game stations, explaining the title to those unfamiliar and guiding people as they go. They usually bombard you with information, or ask some questions to see how familiar you are with the game - they keep a watchful eye to see if the game crashes, or to step in and help if you’re terrible at whatever game you’re seeing and need a helping hand.
Make no mistake, Capybara Games had assigned someone to man their station for the action rogue-like Below at E3 2018, but I have never seen someone so relaxed before. Below seems like a game that would be rife with the need of being explained, but the representative seemed confident that no such issues would arise with Capy’s upcoming adventure. He confidently talked to the press that had questions for him, and was eager to help when needed, but in the meantime, he stood far away, seemingly assured that the player would figure out Below on their own.
For the most part I did. Below is a an atmospheric action game where players delve deep into dungeons, saving their progress with campfires and battling the dangers of the dark. I begin Below on a beach, not a bright sunny beach, but one with gloomy overcast skies.
I begin to wander, aimlessly meandering until I find a cliff side that I can climb, leading to a large field of grass. I go left and then go right - I being to wonder if I’ve missed something or maybe I’m skirting around where I’m supposed to be. I find ruins and try to interact with them, but I can’t. I find a door, but can’t open it. It’s quiet, the only sound in my headphones is wind whipping through the field I’m in. The absence of sound and light creates a restrained, morose tone for the game. I feel small and the eerie silence fills me with a sense of dread.
I look over and another player is somewhere completely different. I wonder how big this demo is. I wonder how much can change from playthrough to playthrough. Since I could only play through one life, I wonder how much progress is lost if I die. Do I lose my equipment? There’s no explanation to the world, no guides within the game to direct you to where you need to go. I feel like Below is cagey at best about how it works, and I hope that’s emblematic of the final product.
I finally discover a cavern leading to a dark, dingy underground beneath the field I was running around in. The world of Below is poorly lit; a trek through darkness. However, I discover a little alcove off of the main path which leads to a pool of water with a some turnips. I pocket the veggies and head to another opening where I find a chest. There’s more food in the chest and next to it is a rope that, when cut, lowers a little bridge. I cross the bridge and am spat back out on the beach where I started.
After poking around in the newly discovered areas, and confident I’ve found all I could, I back track and keep going forward on the main path. The path is soon filled with triprope traps, spikes that shoot up from the ground, and little, red monsters. I slice my way forward and find another little area with food and leather. The food is important as you’re constantly needing to eat and drink to survive in Below. I wasn’t able to acquire food other than finding it, but this need to constantly forage to survive, constantly pressing forward is something that feels at odds with the game’s restrained tone. Jim Guthrie has returned to score another Capy Game and his tonal, quiet score accents the hollow caverns, eerily devoid of life.
I’m getting a little turned around as I’m poking through the caverns and halls of Below, and that’s a problem. I’ve eaten my turnips and the steak that I found in a chest. Now that I’m out of food I’m starting to panic a little. I quickly backtrack after finding myself at a dead-end and start to run through a new section of the dungeon, but running is a problem in Below. No sooner have I started scurrying through a newly discovered area than a spike trap shoots up and kills me. My corpse lies lifeless, the deafening silence and an exclamation point to my foolhardy rush. It’s in this moment that Below reveals it’s nastiness - how one dumb move can end you quickly.
It took a lot to tear myself away from Below, yielding my chair instead of taking another stab at the spelunking action game, which is really what I wanted to do. The rogue-lite elements of the game feel like they’ll be right at home in this gameplay loop of delving into caves, desperately trying to survive, then paying the price when the ever-ticking clock finally gets you to make a mistake.
We’ve been waiting a long time for Below, but hopefully we’ll finally get the game this year. Below is slated for release in 2018 on Xbox One and PC.