PC, Xbox One

EDGE - - GAMES - Pub­lisher Capy­bara Games De­vel­oper In-house For­mat PC, Xbox One Ori­gin Canada Re­lease TBC

Mi­crosoft, dogged by bad press and with a self-pub­lish­ing ini­tia­tive to pro­mote, might have liked you to know a bit more about Be­low by now. You sense the Xbox One maker could have done with Capy­bara Games be­ing more vo­cal about its mys­te­ri­ous new ad­ven­ture, which has been con­fined al­most en­tirely to the shad­ows since it was un­veiled on Mi­crosoft’s stage at E3 2013. This shroud of se­crecy suits the game’s theme, but it has other, more prac­ti­cal ad­van­tages, as Capy co-founder and pres­i­dent

Nathan Vella ex­plains. “It’s given us the chance to fo­cus di­rectly on the game,” he says, “to not have to spend tons of time build­ing it up for demos, for pro­mo­tion, then par­ing it down im­me­di­ately [and] start­ing all over again. Pro­mo­tion, mar­ket­ing, PR: they take a lot of time away from ac­tu­ally mak­ing the game. So hav­ing these last nine months or so to re­ally work on the game has meant that it’s come a long way since we first showed any­thing.”

The in­trigu­ing con­cept shown at E3 has be­come a com­plex web of in­ter­lock­ing sys­tems. Per­haps most com­plex of all is a pro­ce­dural al­go­rithm that will gen­er­ate sin­gle-screen en­vi­ron­ments packed with flora, fauna, en­e­mies and traps. The en­tire game isn’t pro­ce­du­rally gen­er­ated – there will be a story of sorts, and Capy-de­signed hubs – but all of the game’s sys­tems de­pend on that al­go­rithm be­ing just right.

“Be­low is def­i­nitely the big­gest, and I guess con­cep­tu­ally hard­est, videogame that we’ve made,” cre­ative di­rec­tor Kris

Piotrowski says. “The pro­ce­dural el­e­ment does have an as­pect to it where, the mo­ment you lock that stuff down, all of a sud­den a gi­gan­tic chunk of the game just works. We’ve been work­ing pri­mar­ily on that, mak­ing sure that ev­ery sin­gle level that’s gen­er­ated is in­ter­est­ing to ex­plore, and has a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent things to think about.”

De­mand­ing a thought­ful ap­proach is a con­ceit around which all of Be­low’s sys­tems have been de­signed. While your ad­ven­turer is a nim­ble thing – with a dash, a dodge, a oneb­ut­ton melee move set tweaked with the left ana­logue stick, a bow and shield aimed with the right stick, and a two-handed weapon on your back – com­bat is slow paced. Stamina is limited, health doesn’t recharge, and en­e­mies hit so hard that you’re rarely more than one mis­take from death. It’s all very Dark Souls, a game whose com­bat sys­tem Piotrowski ad­mits the team has looked at closely, and whose pre­de­ces­sor, De­mon’s Souls, “bummed me out for about two months” when he re­alised some­one else had made the game he’d been de­sign­ing in his head.

As if to com­pen­sate for that, Capy is adding an­other pun­ish­ing layer to Be­low’s com­bat: a sur­vival sys­tem. Get hit and you be­gin to bleed, and can only patch yourself up by get­ting to safety and us­ing items you’ve found out in the world. Take mul­ti­ple hits and you’ll bleed out even faster. “That’s kind of the ebb and flow of the game,” Piotrowski says. “You en­ter into a com­bat sit­u­a­tion, you do your best to nav­i­gate through it, and if you get nicked on the way, you have to re­treat and dip into the sur­vival sys­tem. Part of the game flow is pre­par­ing yourself for harder ar­eas.” The re­sult is a game in which even the small­est crea­tures de­mand your re­spect. Mer­ci­fully, not all the wildlife in Be­low’s ecosys­tem will set upon you on sight, but the pro­ce­dural sys­tem is likely to throw up the odd sur­prise even in a screen­ful of placid crea­tures, such as a poi­son-spit­ting snake hid­den in the tall grass.

“Mi­crosoft catches a lot of shit – some de­served, some not – but un­der­stands our goals”

And if you fall to your death, you’re gone for good. You’ll respawn, but as a dif­fer­ent per­son, and while you can pick up your old ad­ven­turer’s back­pack, there’s no guar­an­tee it will be full by the time you ar­rive. Some items will be per­ish­able, and Capy is ex­per­i­ment­ing with a sys­tem that will see bod­ies turn to dust over time. Any progress made in the world is per­sis­tent – an unlocked door stays that way, for in­stance – but if you die while hold­ing a quest item, you’ll have to make it back to your pre­de­ces­sor’s corpse to re­trieve it.

This makes item man­age­ment all the more cru­cial: your back­pack can only hold so much gear, and you’ll need to care­fully se­lect its con­tents to en­sure you’re pre­pared for the jour­ney ahead. You’ll start with a sword and shield, but when you find more gear, you’re pre­sented with a stark choice: you can only pick it up if you drop what’s in your hand.

“It dras­ti­cally changes your ap­proach to com­bat, that sin­gle choice,” Vella says. “With the Di­ab­los and the Torch­lights, I can de­cide half­way through a bat­tle that I want to change my en­tire equip­ment setup. In Be­low, you’re go­ing to have to de­cide what style of play you want, and if you de­cide to drop one item for an­other, it’s go­ing to have a gi­nor­mous im­pact on how you play the game.”

If there’s a con­cern, it’s how a com­bat sys­tem of such in­tri­cacy is go­ing to work at Capy’s cho­sen scale. Your char­ac­ter is a tiny pres­ence on­screen, af­ter all, and the cam­era never zooms in. The artis­tic ben­e­fits are ob­vi­ous, re­in­forc­ing the sense of be­ing a lone ad­ven­turer in a vast, hos­tile world, and mean­ing that huge, pro­ce­du­rally gen­er­ated en­vi­ron­ments can fit on a sin­gle screen. But can you re­ally de­sign the sort of com­bat sys­tem nor­mally ex­pe­ri­enced from over a shoul­der to be viewed from so far away?

“It’s been one of the big­gest chal­lenges as far as com­bat goes,” Piotrowski ad­mits. “It’s one of the main things we con­sider when we’re work­ing on new mon­sters, wildlife or traps – it’s al­ways about clar­ity from sit­ting on a couch. A lot of it has to do with treat­ing the en­e­mies in an al­most iconic sort of way, rather than fo­cus­ing on crea­ture de­tails. It’s more about the flow of the an­i­ma­tion, the sil­hou­ettes. Ev­ery­thing the crea­tures do is tele­graphed pretty clearly.”

Be­low is a project with plenty of chal­lenges – no sur­prise, given Capy seems to set out to do some­thing to­tally dif­fer­ent with each new game. Yet what might seem to be the big­gest of all, work­ing with Mi­crosoft, has been any­thing but. In­deed, the plat­form holder sanc­tioned Be­low’s shift from Mi­crosoft Game Stu­dios to the ID@Xbox ini­tia­tive, let­ting Capy not only self-pub­lish the game but also free­ing the stu­dio up to bring it to other plat­forms, such as Steam. Vella thinks it says much about Mi­crosoft’s at­ti­tude.

“Mi­crosoft catches a lot of shit – some of it de­served, some not – but they un­der­stand our goals,” he says. “They un­der­stand the goals of the game and of the com­pany, in­stead of try­ing to shove us in a di­rec­tion that would ben­e­fit them a lit­tle more and us a lit­tle less. [This is] the best-case sce­nario for both the project and the stu­dio. It rep­re­sents a pos­i­tive shift in big pub­lish­ers [and] com­pa­nies un­der­stand­ing the way that in­de­pen­dent de­vel­op­ers de­velop games.”

Sift through Capy’s back cat­a­logue and it’s hard to find a com­mon theme. “We’re very con­scious about not get­ting stuck in a hole,” Vella says. “We’d done Crit­ter Crunch and then Might & Magic: Clash Of He­roes, which are two ex­tremely dif­fer­ent games, but both had some kind of puzzle com­po­nent. We were very con­scious about that.” IOS ad­ven­ture Su­per­broth­ers: Sword & Sworcery EP, timeshift­ing sidescroller Su­per Time Force and Be­low have widened the stu­dio’s range, and Vella’s par­tic­u­larly proud that the stu­dio has been work­ing on two very dif­fer­ent projects at once. “There’s no way of say­ing it that doesn’t come off a bit cocky, which is kind of a bum­mer, but I don’t see a lot of people mak­ing such dif­fer­ent styles of game at the same time.”

From top: Nathan Vella, Capy’s pres­i­dent; Kris Piotrowski, cre­ative di­rec­tor

While dun­geons and com­bat are­nas will be pro­ce­du­rally gen­er­ated, Capy’s aes­thetic sense means the stu­dio isn’t go­ing to com­pletely hand the reins over to ran­dom­ness

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