Getting a chance to sit down and play Below, let’s dive in to what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s familiar.
Below, the much anticipated, much-delayed title from Capybara Games, opens on a beach. A boat lashed to the ground, a lone wanderer, a looming cliff face: all emerge from the dark as if revealed by a gamma slider. Though, it looks as if that slider has gone in the opposite direction over the last five years, the soft greens and white skies glimpsed in that first trailer now cast in a narcoleptic half-light, as if eyelids were lowering over the lens.
As you scuttle about the grassy mesa, scything grass with your sword is a nice wink to the past, and doing so sometimes reveals glowing spoors. The camera is drawn back to a crane shot, dwarfing your movements and giving you a sense of scale reminiscent of Jotun. What first seems a reassuring, expensive-feeling weight soon turns zomboidal, and, in the absence of a run button, tireless somersaulting will have to suffice, your armour clattering in a clumsy rhythm like an idiot on a drum kit.
As you catch sight of where you should be heading (the clue is in the title), a sense of déjà vu sets in. A monolithic edifice on the horizon, a single figure in the sand like a pinprick on a landscape painting, a spirit of sparseness: there’s a specific configuration of indie-spirit iconography passed from Ico, through Journey, to Rime, and now enjoined by Below. So on you push through the brume, whipped with rain, tracing luminous runes in the dirt and squinting through the lantern light, until you come to a cave.
You will come to know these caves well; or rather, you won’t, but it will feel as if you do. Procedural generation blurs and blends these capacious caverns into an enormous black mass. You won’t so much get to know the layout as become acclimatized to the dark and damp. You’ll venture, torch in hand, through swirling mist and blackness, scavenging supplies and crafting, stopping at bonfires to make soup.
Bats flicker past your torchlight; red-eyed beasts wait to pounce, giving you a chance to use that sword on more than grass. It’s a roguelike, replete with permadeath, wherein you pluck crystals from felled foes and solve environmental puzzles. But it’s one that leans on the Souls formula, on a certain sparse indie-adventure sensibility, and one with a powerfully fretful atmosphere.
Jim Guthrie’s score does much of the heavy-lifting for that: wind rushing through rocks, a choir of drips echoing in the darkness, the metal shriek of strings piercing through surreal synth. It does well to make you feel small and lost as you look out from your meagre torchlight, feeling as myopic as Capybara must have felt revealing Below to the public so soon. Five years is a long time.
In a recent interview, Nathan Vella, co-founder and president of Capybara, said, “It’s a game that doesn’t do the things some people like about games. Some people like having their hands held. Some people find constant death frustrating. That’s okay.” Perhaps Mr. Vella has a fence that he’d have us paint as well?
What resonates more than the whiff of reverse psychology, is the insulated sentiment. Perhaps five years ago – before Bloodborne, before Dark Souls II or III, or any number of copycats – his comments would have been fresh, arch even. And perhaps before Rime and Hyper Light Drifter and Titan Souls and leagues of roguelikes, roguelites, and survival games, Below might feel more distinct.
It isn’t as if it’s a bad game, or that playing it wasn’t compelling; it’s that it’s a victim of delays in the cruellest sense. Its fusion of that now-staling indie sensibility and impassive, punishing design might have been met with hosannas years ago. There was almost ten years between the start of development and the release of The Last Guardian. Though there remain fossils of its earliest days – the birling, snagging camera and spooked movement animations – Ueda’s game avoided the frostbite of a long winter because there was nothing else like it in those intervening years. The same can’t be said of Below.
We played Below at this year’s EGX Rezzed.