Heart of darkness — Below review

In its opening moments — a long, slow zoom in on a sailboat moving through stormy seas — Below comes across as either an extremely bold game, or one that’s a bit too in love with itself. Maybe both are true. Opening a game on a single minute-long shot of nothing happening probably takes equal amounts of confidence and hubris, but it also tells you most of what you need to know about what lies ahead of you. You are on a long journey, far from help and utterly alone. The world is dangerous; it is big, and you are very, very small. And finally, you will need patience.

Below is itself the product of a rather long journey. First announced just over five years ago at E3 2013, it stirred up a lot of excitement before going dark again, only to pop up once in a while with a bit of gameplay footage or a tentative release date. From the first time anyone saw it, Below was a mysterious top-down roguelike about delving deep underground to find…something. It was never clear from those early looks what exactly the game was about, and that was part of its appeal. Now we finally have a chance to see for ourselves, and while Below is in many ways worth the wait, it’s an uneven game that sometimes seems to actively push players away.

Once the tiny boat from the game’s intro reaches shore, your character steps out: an even tinier, woefully under-equipped adventurer on a huge, foreboding island. The game’s first moments are surprisingly serene. There’s nothing to threaten you on this beach. You can scrounge a few items (a rock, a turnip), light a bonfire despite the pouring rain, and take your first stab at the crafting system.

As much as crafting has wormed its way into seemingly every game these days, I’m almost always irritated by it — except here. This crafting system is simple and intuitive, which is fortunate, because Below staunchly refuses to tell you how it (or anything else) works. To craft an item, you just select an item in your inventory, and any items it can combine with will be highlighted. Match three combinable items and, with a satisfying chime, you’ll produce something new, like an arrow or a bandage. At the beginning of the game, everything you make is something you’ll have immediate use for, which, along with your tiny inventory, discourages hoarding. You also won’t have to learn recipes or carry any specialized equipment to make anything, though you will need a fire to make food and potions. The most complicated the system gets is when you sometimes need to combine three of the same items to make an intermediate material.

Wander around this lonely beach for long enough, and you’ll soon find your way into the dungeon. The entire game takes place on this one long path into the heart of the island. At first, it’s incredibly tense. With your meager equipment (a sword and shield, a torch, a bow with a handful of arrows), you plunge into a dark cavern full of traps and strange creatures ready to tear you limb from limb. You can often see the glowing red eyes of strange monsters in the corners of a room before you encountered them, the game’s depth of field-heavy art style abstracting them into simple clusters of light. Jim Guthrie’s restrained and menacing score sets the tone perfectly, while the scale of the game emphasizes how alone and outmatched you are. You see your character from a bird’s eye perspective: a tiny, pathetic thing in an enormous, hostile world.

The combat in Below is fairly simple, but satisfying. You can execute a handful of basic sword attacks by dashing, sprinting, or blocking before you strike, and you can find or craft a few different types of arrow for your bow. It pays to use every trick at your disposal, since one false move can bring a swift death. Below’s brutal difficulty has always been part of its pitch, so I was surprised that I made it to the dungeon’s fourth floor without dying once. Then, I went back up a floor to scavenge for food and immediately impaled myself on a spike trap.

When you die in Below, that’s it for your character. You start again with a new, functionally identical character, carrying only the default equipment the game granted you at the beginning. You also have limited access to a sort of interdimensional storage room which can only be reached through one of the campfires scattered around the world. If you store items here, they’ll persist through characters, so you can keep a basic supply of provisions here for future runs if you think you can make do without them in your current life, or sense that the end is near. To recover what you were carrying when you died, you’ll have to fight your way back to your previous character’s corpse, conveniently marked on your map. That’s made all the more difficult by one of the game’s most interesting quirks: its reliance on light.

Early on, you’ll uncover a lantern that’s powered by motes of light dropped by enemies. This lantern provides an aura of light around you and can be pointed in a beam to help spot traps or uncover secrets. The lantern is also essential to progressing in the game’s story, and some areas are completely impassable without it. Monitoring and wisely spending your lantern’s fuel adds a real degree of tension to an already heart-pounding experience. That makes recovering your lantern after each death singularly important. You can always brew new potions or craft more arrows, but that lantern is your lifeline. Relying on a dwindling supply of torches to get it back makes for a tense excursion

Along with light, you’ll have to keep a close eye on your hunger, thirst, and warmth. I died from letting one of these gauges run dry about as often as I did from combat, especially early on. I often find that these kinds of survival mechanics in games take away from the experience more than they add to it. In Below, I never felt that way. The survival aspects of the game feel perfectly tuned; with a little preparation, you’ll always have just enough to get by, but never enough to feel completely safe. Even when I had a stockpile of stew to keep me sated, I always seemed to reach a safe spot just after I had exhausted my supplies, and when warmth was an issue, I found myself constantly finding a fire to kindle while on the very brink of death.

That’s not to say that Below pulls all of this off flawlessly, though. When you’re well-stocked and venturing through the winding subterranean maze, the game feels great, but getting into the groove can be tough. Below is a game that’s best suited to long, intentional play sessions, especially when you need to gear up for a journey into the dungeon. Prepping potions, bandages, and ammunition takes a lot of work, and often means you’ll have to visit several different floors to gather the requisite materials. If you die in the process, you’ll also have to use up more supplies just to retrieve what you were carrying when you died, making it easy to get stuck in a long grinding process, spinning your wheels for hours without getting anywhere. The moment-to-moment action in Below is enjoyable, but its real hook lies in discovery, so these repeated resource gathering trips dull the experience.

Yet when it comes to those moments of discovery, Below delivers like few other games. You’re given absolutely no information when you set out on your journey. What the island is, why you’re there, and even your identity are complete mysteries. So when you uncover something mysterious down in the dungeon — a glowing symbol on the wall, a chamber that doesn’t seem to fit with the ones surrounding it — it can be truly astonishing. Sound plays a huge part in these moments, with the score swelling to underscore the importance and profound strangeness of what you’re seeing. Too often, these moments of wonder came buried in long stretches of tedium, but there were plenty of times that I sat bolt upright in my chair, focusing in to try to work out what I had found and what it meant in the big picture.

Then, there came a point where all of that pretty much stopped. At a certain depth in the dungeon, you’ll find yourself surrounded by darkness. There’s little to see in these areas, no moments of wonder, and nothing to find except a few plot-centric collectibles. All the steadily ramping difficulty, the slow illumination of the game’s story, the gradual accretion of skill and items to help you make your way through the labyrinth are just abandoned. For a few levels, which could translate to a few hours of playtime, you’re just outrunning an invincible foe to reach a deeper level of the dungeon. If you’re not properly equipped, as I wasn’t, it can kill you in the blink of an eye, and once you’ve set foot in this area, there’s no turning back until you reach the end. Your only defense here is light. So if you die, as I did, you’ll be significantly weakened, much more likely to die again when you try to retrieve your body with only torches to see by. Then, as I was, you’ll be stuck trying to scavenge replacements for even those mediocre tools so you can attempt again to retrieve this lantern, only this time, you won’t even be able to follow the map indicator leading you to your last character’s body to find it.

This part of the game became so frustrating that I began to consider starting over, just so I would know to approach this area better equipped the next time. Nearly half of the time I spent with Below took place after my first steps into this abyss area, both from the attempt to make it through and because I missed a few key items I needed to complete the game the first time through and had to make yet another expedition to find them (this time I was much better prepared, and it wasn’t nearly as punishing). So, for about half the time I played Below, I was immersed in a sense of true curiosity, playing because I had no idea what was coming next and I was desperate to uncover it. And for the other half, I was just fighting with the game to get back to what I liked about it.

As unenjoyable as that was, it seems intrinsic to the experience, not a miscalculation in balance. All the words people use to describe difficult games apply here: brutal, punishing, hardcore. But Below also seems cruel and pessimistic. It sets up mysteries that are too enticing to ignore, then slaps you away for trying to decipher them. And if you’re able to make it through its trials anyway, don’t expect to come away feeling victorious. Most of the time, Below feels draining, like embarking on its quest may have been a mistake to begin with. Below is the definition of not for everybody. Despite its extremely strong first few hours, its slow pace, monotony, and crushing difficulty will (and maybe should) turn most people away. I’m glad I got to experience it, and I’ll probably play through it again, though that may tell you as much about me as it does about the game.

A committed indoor kid, Bryan moved from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles for a prettier landscape to ignore. They can be lured outside with promises of taco trucks and film festivals, and enjoy trawling through used book stores for works on the occult. Bryan has been gaming since the SNES era and is a sucker for good pixel art.




Review Guidelines

Below is a dark, mysterious game that invites you to illuminate its secrets, then punishes you for trying. While it does a great job invoking a sense of wonder, thanks in part to its sparse, tense soundtrack, its genuinely great moments are spread far too thin. Below will certainly be a divisive game, but it offers a compelling experience for players willing to put up with a good amount of frustration and tedium.

Bryan Lawver

Unless otherwise stated, the product in this article was provided for review purposes.

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