To say Below has been a long time coming would be an understatement. Announced to the world on Microsoft’s stage at E3 2013, Below was later delayed indefinitely in mid-2016 when developer Capybara Games pivoted to finish up other projects like the game OK K.O.! Let's Play Heroes, an adaptation of the Cartoon Network cartoon of the same name.
Billed as a “brutal but fair” action-adventure game, Below re-emerged at GDC 2018 and PAX East 2018 with a playable demo that would soon come to EGX Rezzed the following April. The demo threw players in at the deep end of a mysterious new world, and puzzled players like me so much that creative director Kris Piotrowski occasionally rushed over to help guide us through the dark depths of its caverns.
Below plays from a top down perspective, interchanging 2D and 3D for more of a 2.5D feel. Marrying the two concepts of 2D and 3D art styles alone introduced a “whole bunch of complications” for Capybara during development, Piotrowski tells me at Rezzed 2018. Although Below marks Capybara’s first foray into 3D games, Piotrowski praises the power of Microsoft’s newest console, saying “for us the scale [of Below] is so tiny, so when we first got it to work on the Xbox One X it was like seeing the art style finally come to life."
While Below is a timed exclusive for Xbox and PC (reconfirmed by co-founder Nathan Vella in April 2018), this doesn't mean PS4 and Switch owners will be getting the game on their console any time soon. Capybara's "focused on launching Below on Xbox One and Xbox One X at the same time, as well as launching the game on Steam," Piotrowski tells me. Ports to other platforms haven't been considered.
In fact, Piotrowski is a confident believer in console exclusivity as a whole. “I do like that there are games made for specific consoles," Piotrowski says. "I think that each console does provide something specific, but I do like that there are still exclusives. There are Sony-only games which I love like Shadow of the Colossus.”
Below might be infamous for its storied development process, but its gameplay isn’t to be overshadowed. At the start of Below's demo, you're in pure darkness. You’re instantly searching for the beaten path, only to inevitably come up empty handed. There are no obvious roads or markers in the murky world of Below, and it’s up to you to choose which dim direction you want to perilously forge.
Often, the sole noise you can hear in Below is the sound of your own footsteps. Capybara mixes this distinct lack of music and light together for an atmosphere of dread, encouraging you to listen before taking steps in any direction. I found myself nearly holding my breath while fumbling around in the dark of Below, constantly on edge for some unexpected beast to lunge out of the dark at my character with naught but a simple short sword at their disposal.
But when the combat does get going in Below, you again feel like you’re walking a fine line between life and death. Capybara teaches players to be overly cautious in the dark, and facing off against enemies in all shapes and sizes—ranging from snakes to rat-look-alikes—you never feel like you can afford a misstep. If you lay into an enemy, you leave your flank and rear exposed to attack, and so you find yourself constantly circling around enemies, looking for the tiniest of openings in which to lunge in, before backing off again.
There’s also pleasant hunting and cooking elements to Below. The sound of running water beckons you over to hunt fish with your spear, jabbing at one of the rare forms of life that doesn’t actually want to kill you. You’ll then happen upon campfires scattered across the world, acting as your respite from the encroaching dark and offering a haven, marking the sole place in Below where I could safely let out a sigh of relief.
Taking the fish from your hunting ventures, you can make soup or grilled fish for you to chow down on when you’re in a tight spot. Your character has food and water meters that you need to keep replenished at all times, and rather than falling into the tired survival trope of forcing you to keep an eye on it every minute, the food and water meters only help to humanize the nameless character.
Below is its own game, but that doesn’t mean it’s afraid to turn to the well of tested mechanics. Death is permanent in Below, and whenever your character perishes you’ll be forced to journey all the way back to your corpse in order to retrieve your gear. It’s a nice touch from other games that Capybara has taken and worked into Below, showing that the development team has adopted new ideas from around the industry while Below has been slowly evolving.
“The industry is always changing, for us one of the benefits is that from the beginning I’ve always felt like we tried to do something unique with Below,” says Piotrowski. "Although we’ve seen the industry changing around us, I’ve felt as though Below has always stood out on its own.”
While there are "no plans" for it to launch through Xbox Game Pass, after well over five years in development, we’ll soon be able to see for ourselves how truly unique Below is when it launches later in 2018.