Below

There’s mys­tery but not enough magic in Below’s bru­tal de­scent.

PC GAMER (UK) - - CONTENTS - By Chris Schilling

Like a re­verse-world ver­sion of Hideo Ko­jima’s so­lar-pow­ered dun­geon-crawler Bok­tai, Capy’s un­com­pro­mis­ing roguelite de­mands to be played in to­tal dark­ness. Here, you’ll find your­self in­stinc­tively lean­ing in to bet­ter make out your mi­nus­cule char­ac­ter and their sur­round­ings. It may not do much for your pos­ture but you’ll feel a phys­i­cal con­nec­tion to your brave ad­ven­turer, like­wise peer­ing anx­iously into the gloom.

An in­dul­gently slow open­ing sees the cam­era de­scend to­wards a tiny speck that be­comes a sail­boat, tossed around by a roil­ing sea. Even­tu­ally, it lands on a beach from where you be­gin a long climb to the labyrinth you’re here to ex­plore.

There’s a whiff of self-im­por­tance about the whole rou­tine, but this is Below’s way of let­ting you know that you need to be pa­tient.

In its early hours, Below is heady, pow­er­ful stuff. Its aes­thetic works won­ders with scale, leav­ing you feel­ing vul­ner­a­ble. Its gloomy en­vi­ron­ments are shrouded in a mist that only clears as you inch for­ward, sword and shield at the ready. As your ev­ery ac­tion echoes around the rocks, Jim Guthrie’s score steels you for the per­ils to come.

It’s eco­nom­i­cal in other ways, too. Below gives al­most noth­ing away; grat­i­fy­ingly, you learn only by do­ing. And though a few lessons are learned

the hard way, it’s gen­er­ally a pretty good teacher. Take the crys­tals dropped by the crea­tures you en­counter early on: these power your lantern, which il­lu­mi­nates the nearby area, but also ac­ti­vates mech­a­nisms and re­veals se­crets. But the gems have a habit of bounc­ing off ledges if you swing your sword at any­thing that ap­proaches. As such, you’re bet­ter off us­ing sin­gle, pre­cise swipes, or jab­bing from be­hind your shield. Not that you can af­ford to be too picky about tac­tics when en­e­mies swarm you from all sides.

If you are hit, you’ll usu­ally start bleed­ing: you can ei­ther ap­ply a ban­dage you’ve found or crafted, or cau­terise the wound at a bra­zier. Light­ing it takes a few fraught sec­onds, how­ever, and en­e­mies will mer­ci­lessly tar­get you when they know you’re oc­cu­pied. It’s this ten­sion that means sur­viv­ing sev­eral rooms’ worth of red lights un­scathed leaves you feel­ing thrillingly alive, and spot­ting a camp­fire to rest at brings a warm­ing feel­ing of re­lief. Here you can sleep and visit a dream­like hub where you can leave items for your suc­ces­sor – al­beit at the cost of leav­ing your­self short for the im­me­di­ate jour­ney ahead.

This cal­cu­lated risk is part of what makes Below ini­tially so ab­sorb­ing, but its ruth­less­ness too of­ten tilts over into out­right un­fair­ness. In­stakill spike traps are oc­ca­sion­ally placed be­hind scenery with barely a cou­ple of pix­els in plain view. En­e­mies can some­times hit through walls, while in a game where split-se­cond tim­ing is cru­cial, the odd slug­gish in­put can mean the dif­fer­ence be­tween stem­ming a po­ten­tially fa­tal wound and los­ing 20 min­utes of progress.

Down and out

Reach­ing your corpse lets you re­trieve its in­ven­tory, but as gaps be­tween camp­fires grow ever wider, and your abil­ity to cre­ate check­points gets steadily more chal­leng­ing, you’re forced to go on sui­cide runs, purely to stock up on sup­plies to leave at the hub. These sur­vival el­e­ments dis­cour­age the de­sire to prop­erly ex­plore, since you haven’t re­ally got the time. And the pro­ce­dural el­e­ments that sub­tly change floor lay­outs are both too much and not enough: you can’t mem­o­rise and thus master your do­main, but the trek back to your body rarely yields any fresh and ex­cit­ing dis­cov­er­ies.

Dur­ing Below’s long jour­ney to the light, the sur­vival genre has flour­ished. Few of its peers can match it for at­mos­phere, but from craft­ing to com­bat to camp­fire check­points, Below feels a lit­tle be­hind the times.

Cal­cu­lated risk is part of what makes Below ini­tially so ab­sorb­ing

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