Be­low

An adventure with real depth

Games Master - - Preview Future Hits Played Now! - Sam Greer

Long de­vel­op­ment pe­ri­ods can of­ten spell trou­ble for games. Many ti­tles come out the other end a shadow of what was promised. Be­low has been in the mak­ing for five years – that’s a lengthy project for any stu­dio but truly a gi­gan­tic task for a small one such as Capy­bara Games. In the case of the mys­te­ri­ous Be­low, though, time doesn’t seem to have tar­nished it at all. If any­thing, from our time with it, it’s made the game all the bet­ter. It’s an ac­tion-RPG with sur­vival and rogue­like el­e­ments. You must col­lect re­sources to feed your ad­ven­turer as you nav­i­gate ran­domly gen­er­ated ar­eas, and your progress is de­pen­dent on your sur­vival, with per­madeath an ever-present threat. ‘Harsh but fair’ is what the de­vel­op­ers are aim­ing for.

You start on the shore of an is­land dur­ing a storm. Are you stranded, or did you come here by choice? Wan­der­ing to the top of the cliffs that make up the sur­face you find a stone struc­ture, a dark en­trance that leads un­der the is­land. Your cute lit­tle char­ac­ter looks mi­nus­cule stand­ing in front of it. It’s a per­fectly omi­nous start, im­me­di­ately fir­ing the imag­i­na­tion. Down there are cav­erns full of wind­ing paths, ob­sta­cles, and enemies. With melee com­bat and sur­vival me­chan­ics, it at first looks like fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory – just an­other pro­ce­du­rally- gen­er­ated RPG dun­geon to bat­tle through, right?

Yet Be­low feels quite dif­fer­ent, some­thing spe­cial in its own right. Though Capy­bara Games has cre­ated sev­eral games in var­i­ous gen­res since its break­out ti­tle Su­per­broth­ers: Sword & Sworcery, Be­low feels like the suc­ces­sor to that stylish adventure. Mu­si­cian Jim Guthrie, who com­posed the sound­track to S:S&S is col­lab­o­rat­ing to pro­vide the al­ready hugely at­mo­spheric sound­track, but the sim­i­lar­i­ties ac­tu­ally go much fur­ther than that.

Dun­geon faller

While Be­low is more me­chan­i­cally deep than Su­per­broth­ers, with more fleshed-out com­bat and a full in­ven­tory, it shares many of the same spe­cial in­gre­di­ents. It’s partly down to the sound and vi­su­als, which make it all so im­mer­sive. The sound es­pe­cially is in­cred­i­ble: rain and wind, foot­steps on

“Be­low isn’t an in­no­va­tive game but it none­the­less feels ground­break­ing”

stone, all au­then­tic enough to suck you right into the game. Close your eyes and you’re still in Be­low’s depths hours later. The art style is a treat too, with its end­less shadow and swirling fog, but it’s the perspective that makes it all work. A tilted cam­era an­gle em­pha­sises your de­scent, mak­ing ev­ery stair­case look ter­ri­fy­ingly steep. There’s also no HUD, so ev­ery­thing is com­mu­ni­cated in-world. Be­low wants you to be lost in that space, to en­gage with it di­rectly with as few menus as pos­si­ble. With­out dis­trac­tions or bar­ri­ers, the ex­pe­ri­ence of ex­plor­ing Be­low is ex­tremely com­pelling.

Be­low isn’t as hu­mor­ous as Su­per­broth­ers, though, so don’t ex­pect off-beat char­ac­ters to make an ap­pear­ance and lighten the adventure (though we still hope a gui­tar-play­ing Guthrie pops up again some­where). In the cav­erns of the is­land you are very much alone. Be­low’s world is fore­bod­ing, full of mys­tery and dan­ger. Capy­bara Games has nailed the feel of an adventure into the un­known, where each dis­cov­ery feels like a sig­nif­i­cant part and not a per­func­tory stop on the way to other things. Even the first deadly in­hab­i­tants you en­counter only add to the mys­tery; they’re not skele­tons or gob­lins, but strange red wisps that charge on sight, a de­cid­edly more sur­real, alien en­emy than is the norm. We’re still won­der­ing what that’s all about.

Dark holes

In that deep, dark world you’ll be ven­tur­ing be­tween camp­sites (your save points, where you can cook food us­ing dif­fer­ent recipes to re­store hunger and health). They’re quite cosy, those lit­tle spots, which nat­u­rally re­mind us of Dark Souls’ fa­mous bon­fires, your only refuge in a lethal world, though with a lit­tle tent and cook­ing pot they’re just more homely than the sword-in-ash check­points. But the sense that some­thing is lurk­ing just beyond the light of your lit­tle fire looms… To make it to the next camp­site you’ll be seek­ing items to open up the world or help you nav­i­gate its treach­er­ous depths. None of them come with a de­scrip­tion of their func­tion beyond a name, so you’ve some dis­cov­er­ing to do. We love how you can see your back­pack fill­ing up with items too – no bot­tom­less bags for this ad­ven­turer. It helps make your hero seem real and vul­ner­a­ble, their back­pack clank­ing full of ob­jects, in a way few videogame char­ac­ters feel.

There are dif­fer­ent weapons to help you fight your way through, but Be­low avoids the trap of stats fid­dling and in­stead gives weapons mean­ing­fully dif­fer­ent uses. Your sword is quick and comes with a shield, but the spear gives you reach. It all feels good and hefty, some­thing tricky to pull off when the cam­era is so far from the ac­tion. None of that’s new or novel, but in the con­text of a game that makes ev­ery dis­cov­ery spe­cial and each step along the path a sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge, those el­e­ments be­come all the more mean­ing­ful.

Be­low’s ideas aren’t so new re­ally, but it none­the­less feels ground­break­ing. It strips away the flab of bloated RPGs and de­liv­ers a lean RPG that’s just all the good bits. A proper adventure, with a real sense of mys­tery. It’s so re­fresh­ing to play some­thing that feels like it ex­ists in its own lit­tle bub­ble, com­pletely de­tached from all the trends of mod­ern RPGs.

We came away from Be­low feel­ing re­freshed. This is some­thing cool and unique in un­ex­pected ways. Our next adventure Be­low can­not come soon enough.

It’s very easy to get lost be­neath the mys­te­ri­ous is­land. You’d bet­ter hope the light doesn’t go out.

The vi­su­als have changed since the ini­tial an­nounce­ment five years ago, with the game now darker than ever.

There are loads of mys­ter­ies wait­ing to be un­cov­ered, pro­vided you can sur­vive long enough to find them.

Craft­ing is a vi­tal me­chanic for keep­ing your lit­tle ad­ven­turer alive in this un­der­ground world – and nat­u­rally, death means los­ing ev­ery­thing.

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