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