Below is a beautiful, captivating experience that does all it can to push the player away from exploring to their heart’s content. As much as I wanted to continue diving deeper into the dark, mysterious underground world, the survival aspects of the game and the punishing high cost of dying pushed me away as much as the intrigue of the world drew me in.
A lot of Questions, No Answers
Below starts with an explorer arriving at an island on a ship. There is no backstory to our boy, but he feels like going underground for some reason. With no tutorial or tips at the beginning, I felt very lost for a good chunk of my starting play time. Not only did I continually find the wrong path to take but figuring out the games simplest mechanics was a chore. I ran into many issues of trying to figure out what items to pick up, how to effectively use my weapons, understanding the crafting, and what I needed to do to progress.
Leaving room for the player to teach themselves how to play your game is fine, but anyone coming into the game not having any idea what Below is, (like I did) is going to be very lost when they first start playing the game. Below would benefit from having a tiny tutorial for the player to understand not only how to continue moving down, but also how to utilize their resources best.
A Failed Attempt to be Dark Souls
Below’s gameplay is simple but intentionally works against the player. The constant need to keep your food, water, and health meters full kind of detracts from the fun of the game. While I think the survival aspects were a good idea to be included to increase the difficulty, the RNG of the game leads to the player missing out on the essential materials needed to survive. While I rarely ever had issues with finding water, not being able to find food was probably the biggest reason I died the most. I would be running between the randomly generated rooms with only shadow enemies and floor traps to greet me. It’s fine for a game to require the player to keep their body in top shape, but with how fast the food meter goes down, you will die just because the game wants you to die.
I honestly feel that the developers wanted to cheaply grab some of that Dark Souls popularity with being hard to be hard. There are times where you will die, and there was nothing you could have done. Comparing the difficulty in this game to a game like Cuphead dampens my mood on Below. That game is hard, but when you die you know what you did wrong, and you can correct it. With Below, some deaths feel cheap and frustrating when you realize how much ground you have to make up to find your inventory.
Death Means a LOT of Backtracking
When the player meets death, that is it for that character. The game resumes with a new explorer coming to the shore to once again go exploring with newly generated rooms. The world underground is procedurally generated. Whenever the player dies every room changes; regardless if it’s the one they just died in. This was annoying to me because it does not add anything to the gameplay experience except more time wasted. You will also be required to find the body of your last explorer before you can continue because of the lantern that you receive at the beginning of the game. There is only this one lantern, and it is needed to open certain doors and to light your path. It does not carry over to your new explorer when dead.
A Small-Time Beauty
Graphically, Below uses a minimalist design to its beauty. With the game being as dark as it, there is not a need for it to be graphically superior. Even above ground, the game takes place in the middle of the night on a deserted island. Aside from using the lantern, there is not much to see. Even the dark creatures you fight in the dark remain shadows when exposed to light. Even though the game is very dark, I appreciate how it looks overall. The feel of the lonely caves, combined with the steady music makes the game as calming away from combat as it is stressful during the fight for survival.
There is absolutely no reason to care about the explorer. Besides the fact that he will get switched out with another one in 20 minutes, there is nothing about him to point out. The camera is usually too far away to even notice any differences between explorers. My biggest complaint with the look of the game is the camera. The camera is always so far zoomed out it is hard to recognize little details which make Below feel not as special graphically. When you do get sucked into the atmosphere though, the dark caves and sound design help place you in a state of loneliness that I enjoyed. At times when I was not fighting monsters or running around looking for food or the next objective to progress, I felt relaxed.
Overall, Below had a lot of opportunities to be a great game to pull people in. The atmosphere underground is great and procedurally generated rooms make it a different experience every time. Unfortunately, unforgiving survival mechanics, cheap deaths, and the game not promoting exploration take a lot of fun out of what should have been. The game is built on replayability but is too frustrating and tedious to suggest enduring the headache.
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- THE GOOD
- Dark Atmosphere
- Great Sound Design
- THE BAD
- Annoying Survival Mechanics
- Annoying Dependence on Lantern
- Difficult Just to be Difficult
Great Potential Ending in a So-So Game
I really wanted to enjoy Below. I wanted a gripping indie game to suck me in and get me lost in its world, but overall all I gained from this was a headache and a loss of breath from sighing in discontent. If you like hard games just because of a challenge, give it a try. If you want a worthwhile experience though, you might want to look somewhere else.