An adventure with real depth
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.
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.
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.