Below Is Good, but It's Literally Way Too Dark

You won't get far if you play on the couch.

Below, Capybara's long-awaited action-roguelike game, is available on PC and Xbox One. Will you like it? Well, it's a tricky recommendation; a lot depends on how much you personally love punishing roguelikes.

I can recommend this much with confidence, though: Don't play Below from your couch. To paraphrase a vulgar meme from 2006 or so, "You won't be able to see shit, Captain."

Capybara clearly put a lot of effort into making Below as dark, foreboding, and mysterious as possible. It largely succeeds, thanks to its gloomy color palette, its zoomed-out perspective, and its beautifully brooding soundtrack by veteran composer Jim Guthrie. From the minute your nameless adventurer washes up on the stormy shores of a rocky island, you feel quite alone. There are no instructions telling you what to do. No recipes for crafting the food and weapons that become vital to your survival as soon as you plunge underground. Everything is done by trial and error.

Withholding directions from players is a valid game design decision, even if some players despise it. Gloomy graphics and a zoomed-out perspective are valid game design decisions, too, and they help establish the lonely helplessness Capy wants you to feel. The rain, the cold, and the muddled feeling of "What do I do?" are all part of Below's sink-or-swim method of learning. If you can't learn how to fight, craft, and spot traps on Level One, you won't live long enough to see Level 20.

A not-so-valid game design decision is requiring players to get as physically close to Below as possible if they want to stand a chance of seeing the on-screen action. I first tried to play Below on my Xbox One while sitting on my couch. The game's dark colors, tiny character models, and zoomed-out perspective mixed with its myriad floor-traps, foggy corridors, and permadeath mechanics to give me a bad time.

Now, I don't have a 4K TV. I definitely don't have a pair of eagle eyes, though my Coke-bottle lenses generally do the trick. All I have is my dad's voice echoing in my head, telling me during my formative years to stop sitting so close to the TV for God's sake. So, couch-plus-console has been my favorite way to game for a long time.

"Hellooo? Now just what in the Sam Hill is goin' on here?"

I suspected I'd have a better time of things with Below if I downloaded it for PC. I was right; Capy's desire to let you regard and control the action as a (often helpless) god is expressed much more clearly when you're up close to the game. The small hero becomes truly insignificant and isn't just a moving speck. Enemies gain definition but remain mysterious. The fog that chokes the corridors enhance the game's atmosphere and is more than just an annoyance that masks traps and enemy movement until it's too late. I don't have a gaming PC, but luckily, Below still runs well on my sad little rig. That makes it even easier to recommend the PC version if your Xbox One is set up for couch play.

Going back to what I said earlier, though, Below is still a tricky recommendation. Again, instructions are sparse, and death is permanent. Plus, you need to find the last fallen adventurer's corpse in order to retrieve the lantern item, which is vital for opening lower levels of the ruins—and it's also vital for lighting your way in the gloom, of course. You have to deal with hunger, thirst, and cold. If you die (and you will), you lose everything. Some elements in the ruins are procedurally-generated, which makes retrieving your lantern all the more aggravating.

"Echo!" [Echo...echo...echo]

Frankly, if you're in love with roguelikes, you probably know the deal by now. You just gobble up the pain inflicted upon you. And if you're in love with the merciless roguelike genre, there's little reason you won't love the damp, cold punishment Below is happy to mete out. Just make sure you buy an edition of the game that lets you see what the heck is going on.

(Don't forget to check out our guide to crafting, map layout, and general survival in Below, too. You'll need it.)

Tagged with Analyses, Below, Capybara Games, PC, Xbox One.

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