Capy gives new meaning to the pen-and-paper RPG
PC, Xbox One
We’re bleeding. Our avatar might only be a tiny presence onscreen, but it’s pretty obvious we’ve been cut. There’s the trail of blood, for one thing, which has already been set upon by a group of leeches. Below’s UI is sparse by design – invisible, in fact, unless there’s something you need to see – so there’s no ignoring the sudden appearance of a heart slowly being drained of its ruby-red hue either. We should probably do something about this.
We bring up the menu. On it, we see all the items we’ve gathered so far: carrots, fish, sticks and strips of cloth. We look for a recipe of some kind – perhaps we can make a potion to staunch the flow and top up our health, or cobble something together to patch us up. All those things are possible – and in our current state, highly advisable – but there’s no recipe menu or auto-crafting option. All we can do is experiment, using or combining our meagre wares in the hope of finding an answer before we bleed out.
When we find a remedy, no shortcuts or memory aids are logged – we’ll simply have to remember it for next time. The same goes for soups, brewed at firepits and used for healing, curing status effects and bestowing buffs. “There’s a hint system for those paying close attention, but a lot of it is just trial and error, figuring it out,” Capy president Nathan Vella explains. “It’s very much about players discovering these things for themselves.”
FromSoftware’s games are a key reference point for Capy, and this crafting system is a natural, elegant fit for the ethos. Much like Dark Souls, death sees you respawn with your earnings left on your former body, those gains disappearing forever if you fail to reach it
during your next life. Here, as in Dark Souls, the only thing that persists is what you learn along the way. When Below is finally released – announced at E3 2013, Capy is targeting a launch late this year or early in 2016 – you’ll want to play it with a pen and paper to hand.
There are nods to FromSoftware in the combat, too, albeit fewer of them than when we previously checked in on the game. An early dodge-roll has been replaced with a dash, largely for aesthetic reasons; a stamina system that caused you to tire after a handful of dodges has been abandoned because Capy felt it was too punitive. Fighting is weighty, deliberate and uses both sticks, the right one rotating your character when their shield is raised. In addition to the traditional suite of light and heavy weaponry – only one item of which can be carried at a time, chosen when you spawn and with you until you die – your bow and arrows provide a ranged option, a line showing a shot’s trajectory extending the longer you hold your aim. But while combat may be steadily paced, your character never feels forcibly slowed down. “You’re supposed to be nimble, for sure, but every [individual] movement should not feel quick,” Vella says. “It’s an interesting balance, and I think partly that comes from having time with the game to figure that out.”
Indeed, appropriately given the subject matter, Vella and Capy have worked on Below in the shadows, shying away from the expo circuit in a bid to ensure the studio’s biggest, most complex game to date achieves its potential. “The same thing has happened with a bunch of our games,” Vella says. “We really love it for the first 30 to 60 minutes, then we find that love decreases and we realise we have to figure out, ‘How do you make a game that isn’t just fun in demo form?’ We had to do that on Super Time Force, we had to do that on Superbrothers: Swords & Sworcery, and now it’s just part of the way we build our games.”
The major change that the past 12 months of silence has brought is a lantern. It’s not the only portable light source in the game – you can craft torches – but it’s certainly the most important, not only illuminating the world but also revealing its secrets. With it in hand, a glowing signal appears on the ground to alert us to a tripwire; later, a mysterious cave drawing appears on a wall. While death means a new hero with their own sword and shield, there will be only one lantern in the entire game – a point reinforced when Vella, with lantern equipped, brings up a debug menu, level-skips to some catacombs, dies, and then apologetically hands us the controller.
Shortly after, we’re lining up an arrow shot when our avatar is surrounded by bats. We can kill them for meat, use their wings to craft arrows, or leave them be, just as we could have ignored the fact we were bleeding earlier on, just as we could play the whole game without the lantern’s magical assistance. As Vella puts it: “Everything can be used for something, but you don’t need to use any of it.”
For all the elegant intricacy of Below’s systems, many of them will be missed, or can be ignored; it’s an uncommonly restrained line of thinking at a time when so many games appear terrified of you missing a trick. When it was first revealed, Below was the standout of a slender lineup of indie games on Xbox One. Those ranks have swelled during Capy’s time in the shadows, but it remains, whether lit by lantern or not, one of the console’s brightest prospects.
“Everything can be used for something, but you don’t need to use any of it”
While you can only brew soups at firepits, other forms of crafting can be performed anywhere in the world. It’s a necessary concession, given the bleeding system and the need to top up ammo supplies while on the go
Capy president Nathan Vella
The landscape is procedurally generated anew every time you die, although the overall shape of the world is persistent and certain key landmarks stay in place. If heading down, left and down from the start takes you to a washed-up shipwreck on one life, then the same will apply when you respawn
Despite the small size of your avatar, the action is clearly readable both in and out of combat. Clearing the screen of clutter, with a UI that only appears when you need it, further reinforces the sense of being lost in a vast, foreboding world