Hands on: Below

The dark, terrifying caverns of 'Below' will thrill you before they kill you

Capy Games’ Below has been a long time coming. First announced at E3 2013, the game had already been in development for several years prior to that. A small, indie team founded in Toronto in 2003, Capy entered the industry creating mobile games, first making critical waves with its charming 2008 puzzler, Critter Crunch. In the works nearly since then, Below is a far more ambitious proposition, aimed squarely at hardcore gamers.

On paper, Below is an aesthetically-minimalist roguelike game with crafting and survival systems — a popular RPG genre. Far from merely checking off boxes, however, these elements feel natural and essential. With recent hits like Super Brothers: Sword & Sworcery EP and Super Time Force, Capy Games has repeatedly demonstrated an uncanny knack for surfing the zeitgeist without pandering to trends.

As Below enters the final stretch of development before release, we were fortunate enough to get some hands-on time with it.

Roguelike-like

At its heart, Below hearkens back to the demanding roguelike genre (so-named for imitators of 1980’s Rogue). A subset of dungeon crawlers, roguelikes generally feature procedurally-generated levels, punishing gameplay, and permanent death. While Below’s creators have been cautious in the past to refer to it as a “roguelike-like,” in order to avoid alienating purists of the term’s narrowest definition, the word has come to be used with so much latitude in recent years that this feels frankly truer to the genre’s spirit than many similar games. Dark Souls is another obvious comparison, for both its grim aesthetic and brutal gameplay, requiring a certain degree of dedication for mastery.

Below is set on a mysterious island, primarily in the vast network of caves beneath its surface. You arrive at the beach with no goal other than exploring the depths and uncovering the island’s mysteries. Die from any number of the lurking creatures and hazardous environmental conditions, and you must start from scratch back at the top as a new character, indicated by the slightly different sprite. Any items acquired on your previous run are lost, though they can be recovered if you find the corpse.

Below is dark and full of terrors.

If you die after a long run, don’t pull your hair out yet. There are shortcuts you’ll discover as you play that can help you bypass sections of the caves to pick up closer to where you left off. In this way it is reminiscent of Cellar Door Games’ delightful Rogue Legacy, which similarly framed individual perma-death runs within a larger meta-progression as you slowly pick your way through its castle.

Combat is classic hack-and-slash, starting the player with a simple sword and shield and the promise of more powerful equipment hidden underground. The developers made the apt comparison to The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, which accurately describes the flow and feel of combat. Tapping the run button allows for a short leap in any direction, channeling Wind Waker’s nimble rhythm of dodging, blocking, and striking, with an emphasis on timing and position.

Into the deep

Darkness pervades everything in Below. Far from the colorful chaos of Super Time Force, which filled the screen with dinosaurs and lasers, Below’s screen is largely black, punctuated by pools of light as your minuscule (relative to the screen real estate) hero plunges deeper into the earth. Navigating the surface isn’t much brighter, sharing the muted green, grey and brown color palette of Sword and Sworcery. The atmosphere works beautifully in concert with the game’s mechanics to create a sense of isolation and dread; Below is dark and full of terrors.

Below

These terrors include the expected monsters and traps, but their threat is greatly amplified by the need to monitor hunger, thirst, and warmth. Any of these bottom out and you’re dead. Once injured by monsters you will also continue to bleed, steadily losing health until you either apply a bandage or, more gruesomely, cauterize the wound with a source of fire. You can hear your character doing so with their flame-heated sword is subtle, but visceral.

Simple foodstuffs such as potatoes and fish can be found throughout the levels for a quick hunger fix, but to survive in the long term you will need to brew soups at the campfires found between levels. Any three foodstuffs will combine with a bottle of water to create a simple stew, but particular recipes can be worked out to create soups with specific effects, such as bolstering you against the cold, which becomes more oppressive in the game’s lower levels.

Capy Games has repeatedly demonstrated an uncanny knack for surfing the zeitgeist without pandering to trends.”

Crafting other items, unlike soup, can be performed anywhere from the inventory menu. Simple elements discovered through play, such as reeds, sharp stones, cloth, and bat wings, can be used in various combinations of three to create items like torches, bandages, and arrows. Inventory space is very limited, so don’t expect to stock up on effectively infinite healing potions as if this were Diablo.

Our time plumbing Below’s depths was challenging, but rewarding. We died multiple time in the 30 minutes or so of play we had, but this felt natural. Like with Dark Souls, mastery of Below comes through making mistakes and knowing better for the next time. Beyond just learning the combat system and crafting recipes, there are subtle systems at work for you to wrap you head around if you hope to survive beyond the first few levels.

Excavation

Capy Co-Founder and Creative Director Kris Piotrowski used the word “excavate” multiple times during our conversation to describe the studio’s ongoing work on the game. Ostensibly a quip about the game’s subterranean setting, when pressed he admitted that the word spoke to a certain organic sensibility in the game’s design process. Below has been in development for more than three years now, and the team is collectively dedicated to drawing out as much fun in the game’s premise as it can, no matter how long it takes to complete.

The game’s core elements are all in place, and these final months dedicated to polish and “excavating” some of the game’s deeper content. Piotrowski promised to reveal more game systems in the coming months. Previous trailers, for instance, have indicated the possibility of some multiplayer elements, though Capy has been coy about its particulars.

That design process has clearly paid dividends, as Below seems to be the largest and most ambitious project that Capy has yet released. Below will finally arrive on PC and Xbox One sometime in summer 2016.

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