Below is a strange, sometimes even disturbing take on the top-down action-adventure genre, made for PC and Xbox One by developer Capybara Games. It’s also one of those games which stubbornly resists being neatly pigeonholed into this video game category or that. A roguelike dungeon crawler at heart Below takes this time-honored genre and strips it off all the unnecessary parts until there remains nothing but the most essential chunks of what normally makes up an average title of this type, loosely tied in the likeness of an action-adventure game. As one of the many casualties of this extreme reduction process, all hints of coherent storyline or narrative, all indications of your motives and inner drives which force you to take upon yourself a dangerous task such as this, had been omitted by the authors of the game. The more I play it, the less I know about it, remaining baffled by its mysteries and thought-provoking ambiguities.
You play the role of an anonymous warrior which travels by ship to the shores of the remote, bleak and solitary island. For some unknown reason, the warrior attempts to gain access to the mountain at the center of the island and then proceeds to descend ever deeper to the bowels of this place. At first you’ll naturally wonder about the meaning of this precarious ordeal, but, as you manage to unseal the stone doors which lead to the innards of the island and start your deliberately slow-paced descend, you’ll realize that this is first and foremost the game of subtle atmosphere, and only then an action adventure in the conventional sense of the word.
After that breakthrough, everything becomes inconsequential but the fact that you’re descending deep into the dark, beating heart of the inner gloom, far below the placid hinterlands of the gray, humdrum, rainy surface world from whence you’ve come. This is the place where terrifying, hellish forces boil and stir like in the kettle and you’re just a fleck armed with sword and shield, bow and arrows. This is well signified by your tiny stature which seems petite and negligible in comparison to your environs – grand, breathtaking, immense, even if you’re traveling vertically downward deep into the obscure underground. Then you realize that you may be a protagonist, the one destined to carve his way through the hellish cohorts that lurk in the shadowy corners of this chthonic world, but the game is actually dedicated to the locality itself and its foreboding atmosphere. Below swallows you in its dark, gaping, cavernous yawn and it won’t release you soon, not unless you show your dedication, skill, and ingenuity in solving its many challenges and mysteries.
As roguelike game, Below also features procedurally generated maps which you’ll explore by the feeble light of the lamp. On your way down, you’ll collect crystals which you’ll use to refill your shaky but indispensable light source, as well as to trigger various mechanisms. If – when – you die, you’ll be required to track down your remains in order to retrieve your equipment. In addition to these common hardships of the video game adventuring, you’ll also be forced to take care of tedious needs of your body such as hunger, thirst and, at one point, even the feeling of cold, all of which have a detrimental effect on your health. Of course, in addition to these, Below will face you with many other threats. Many creatures hide in the underground corridors of this nameless island, but don’t expect perpetually congested halls like in Diablo – the action here is much more restricted and controlled than in Blizzard’s game.
Below is a roguelike dungeon crawler RPG which is decidedly reserved and tight-lipped when it needs to discover the wider context of its story, following a certain trend that can be seen in a number of indie games. A game of atmosphere and suspense, morose localities and sudden shockers, Below is a subversive homage to the whole dungeon crawling sub-genre which will leave you guessing and second-guessing its intentions and meanings. Don’t fall into the trap of the pretentious desire to understand everything – instead, let yourself go and try to experience its atmosphere. The graphical representation of Below is truly superb: delicate, controlled, foreboding, with a restricted color pallet and intentionally playful approach to the perspective, space, proportions, and scale of everything – a true counterpart of its atmosphere. The same goes for a convincing and effective ambient soundtrack by Canadian musician Jim Guthrie, which will constantly follow you along the way through this caverns, like an eerie, warped echo of your very own footsteps. To sum it up, be sure to try out Below. It is a fine creation in every respect, from basic concept to the execution – just don’t expect your usual action-adventure experience, and you should be ok.