There has never been and will never be a game that pleases everyone. There are games, however, that critics should at least be able to agree that are technically good games. Red Dead Redemption 2 for example, is an astonishingly impressive game and yet there are folks out there (somewhere) who still don't care for it. I’m starting to see my role as a gaming critic like walking in the no-mans-land between critique and opinion. In my humble opinion critique should be a relatively precise process, looking at technical aspects such as graphics, sound, level design etc. Once I’ve laid down the facts I can then start to weave my opinion into the fold and let gamers know what I personally think. Reviewing popular games is fun, but the real challenge comes when reviewing a game that is divisive, like digital Marmite. If I had my druthers I’d review these games all the time because it really makes you consider what makes a game tick.
I first saw Below running at E3 2013 and it instantly caught my attention with its striking art style and moody atmosphere. After a stint in the spotlight, it dispaeraed, only to pop up with a release date at the end of last year. It occurred to me very shortly after I started reviewing Below, that I’d actually owned another game from this developer. I played Superbrothers: sword & sorcery EP years ago on my old iPad and it was one of the first games I really enjoyed playing on a tablet. This was mainly due to its intriguing design choices, like how the phases of the moon act as a gameplay mechanic. If you own a tablet I heartily recommend you give it a poke.
Below opens with a protracted sequence, starting off way above the voltaic clouds and then panning down to a solitary vessel in the ocean. Over the next four minutes, the ship cuts through the stormy swell to finally land on a beach. It is here where you see your adventurer hop off the ship and the game begins proper.
Below is described by its creator Kris Piotrowski as a roguelike dungeon crawling experience with some similarities to games like Zelda. While still in it’s conceptual stages, Kris also mentions games from the Pixel Junk catalog (like Shooter) that gave him inspiration with their excellent use higher resolution displays. As you stand alone on the deserted beach you ponder which way to head first, maybe up the rock stairs that have been carved into the cliff? Maybe climb up the rock face or perhaps that cave over there is the way to go?
Many games open with some kind of tutorial or some subtle prod in the right direction, but in Below you are literally left to figure things out in your own time. This will be the first crossroads for gamers and some will not get on with this kind of freeform adventuring. No quest markers, no handy list of attack combinations or a nifty compendium with the knowledge you’ve picked up. Below just hands you a sword, a bow and tells you to get on with it.
Once you have made your way underground you will start to notice that each level is numbered. This is your measure of progress and gives you an idea of how deep you have delved into the dangers that lie in wait under your tiny feet. Each level is made up of interconnected chambers which you must traverse in order to gain access to the next level. There are actually some procedural elements to how these pieces fit together which does add a degree of replay value and I was mostly impressed with how the varied dungeons turned out. Most of the time progress downward is bared by a door that can be opened in a few different ways. Maybe a key from a sunken cave or perhaps directing light from your powerful lantern? You acquire this lantern early in the game and it’s essential to your success: but more on that later.
Like any game which calls itself a roguelike, dying is to be expected and perish you will. It is likely that your first unexpected trip to the next life will be aided by a spiked trap, something that has become the object of hatred for a few games journalists I follow. Very simply, if you get a little too close to one of these man sized kebab skewers, you are brown bread in one shot. It might sound bizarre in a game already overly keen to kill you, but I wish it was possible to actually fall to your death. Alas, it is impossible to wander over an unseen precipice and topple to a sticky end. Once death finally catches you up, back on the surface the next adventurer sails onto the shore (thankfully without the four minute wait) and you spring forth with a brand new body to mangle. Your aim at this point is to get back to where you croaked, gather your hard-won resources and retrieve that all-important lantern. This is, however, where the rub for many gamers will start to chafe a little. You can, if you wish, fight your way back down the levels or if you saved your position at a campfire you can simply teleport there with a little snooze (if only British trains worked this well). Once you get past level seven, the latter will likely be your preferred way of continuing the game, unless you need to farm some tucker and gems from the easier levels above.
The real problem is that sometimes you will die in a particularly dangerous place and getting to your belongings (or the belongings of your predecessor) is nigh on impossible. Another mortal coil which I suspect will cause something of a divide in opinion is the survival mechanics. Like in many survival games you have a few needs bars to satisfy, namely hunger, thirst and warmth. Unless you are in the ice caves the warmth meter isn't so much of a problem, but thirst and hunger drop pretty fast. Thirst is the easiest to keep topped up with pools of water, rivers and even jars you can fill with H2O. Hunger is a bit more problematic and I can see this being the biggest reason for gamers to eventually give up and throw the controller down. That said, I have found that with a decent spell of preparation you can avoid death by starvation. The real question is, how much time are you willing to spend on this fairly repetitive process of gathering?
Combat is a relatively simple affair in Below, with your character utilising a few key weapons like a bow or spear. My go-to choice was the sword and shield, which gives you a few varied attacks but also allows you to block incoming blows. Killing enemies will net you resources and some will drop gems that allow you to save at campfires, purchase items and also power your lantern. Early enemies don't pose much of a threat but in the later areas, there can be some very tricky little blighters.
In one of the first caves, you will come across a pool of fish and if you are lucky a spear. With a bit of prodding, this can create your first good supply of food. Other sources of meat can be acquired from bats (plentiful when you find them), larger creatures like foxes and even rats you see scurrying around the cave floor. Small pieces of meat, mushrooms and the like can actually be cooked at the campfire, with various effects depending on the ingredients. This, of course, depends on how many spare jars you can collect but cooking is another way to prepare for the long journey into the deep.
As you play you will also come across many other small items, from sticks, string, rocks etc. Crafting these into useful items such as arrows and bandages is a simple task, you just select the three correct components and boom. The problem I found is that you have a very limited inventory space and this is also shared with arrows, first aid and explosives. I understand this is meant to make you take tough decisions but even so, it felt like the bag space I had was more of a frustration than simple checks and balances.
One nice idea is that when at a campfire, you can enter a dream area where items, including armour, can be stored for future use. However, there isn’t a great deal of extra space to be found here either. While on the subject of armour I would have loved it if the game had made a bigger deal of loot, either in the sense of treasure or powerful weapons to covet. There is new armour and items to find, but it never feels like they make much of a difference to the overall experience. Make your game hard as nails for sure, but then give me a reward for besting it.
Is it PC?
Even the visuals seem to have been a divisive element in Below’s reception, while some love the tiny details and minute graphical assets, others have been turned off by the microscopic characters. I fall squarely in the former camp and love the way Below looks. In fact, this was why it originally grabbed my attention. I do feel like many of the areas that take you aback come more in the earlier part of the game (like the dramatic shipwrecks), but then again this may also be due to the fact you are fighting for survival in the latter half of the game.
The developers have used light and dark to good effect, with the warm flickering light from a campfire (or torch) sitting in stark contrast to the foreboding blackness around you. Mist and smoke will obscure your view of a new dungeon until you have trodden those paths. I also like the way the game uses a tilt-shift photography effect, which I think represents the limitations of your eyesight but also adds even more sense of scale. In the blackness, you can also make out the faint twinkle of light when enemies are present, like catching wolves reflective eyes with the headlights from a car.
The music is an important component of Below’s atmosphere and like Superbrothers, the talented Jim Guthrie is at the helm. I love how the thunder in the opening sequence rolls with the synth soundtrack. The sound design does not falter throughout the entire game, whether it be the wind rushing past you as you entire a new cave or the guttural moans from your eviscerated enemies. I played the entire game on my trusty Xbox controller although mouse and keyboard is fully supported. As for performance, the game ran like a dream for me and should run well on all but the most underpowered rigs.
Tough games don't always do well, simply because they are tough. Sure, Dark Souls seemed to buck this trend but I suspect that was more a case of it catching on with popular trends. Many developers these days opt to tone down the skill cap of their games in order to cater to the mass market. Maybe this makes more financial sense as a games developer, I don’t know. I remember the wonderful and woefully underrated Rain World from 2017 having a similar reception from mainstream gaming media. It was marked down not for being badly designed but more because it was tough on players who weren’t good enough to beat it. So we have come full circle and the question remains, is Below a good game?
I believe Below is a very good game that does suffer because it doesn’t embrace what it started out to be. The survival mechanics do enough to hamper the exploration and yet don’t justify themselves enough to be satisfying in their own right. However, players with enough grit and resolve to push through this pain barrier will find a truly wonderful gaming experience that does become more than a sum of its parts. If you enjoy roguelikes then you are already a player who likes a challenge and with Below, you will be in good company.
Thank you for reading my review of Below on PC. I'd like to thank Capybara Games for providing me with a review copy of Below, this is always appreciated and allows Rigged for Epic to cover more games. If you like the site then please follow me on Twitter @riggedforepic where I post all my new content.