Below the Stone is a fascinating mixture; take the underground mining and exploration of Stardew Valley, combine that with the die and start again gameplay of a roguelike, and you would be just a few dwarves short of making this game. I had the chance to descend into the mines with Below the Stone at PAX West and found a smart little roguelike with some strong risk/reward mechanics and a whole lot of ore.
World of dwarfcraft
The premise for Below the Stone is simple enough. You start as a new dwarf in the Exploration Guild, tasked with delving below the surface in order to advance dwarven society and find the mysterious Deepest Depths. Michael Carroll, part of the three-person team at Below the Stone developer Stollart, sat down with me to guide me through a demo.
I started in the Dwarven Kingdom, which serves as the player’s hub world. Here, I could talk to some NPC’s, craft, store items, and more. I’m told additional NPCs will be rescued from the mine as I play, unlocking features like alchemy, brew crafting, and more. For now, I visit the bank to collect some stored materials, then headed to the blacksmith, where I crafted a nice set of arms and armor before I journey down below.
I visit an NPC near the entrance to the mine. This is where you will choose your goals for the coming run. I could accept up to three separate quests, each with its own rewards. The caveat was that I would need to complete all of these quests before I could return. I could set a modest goal, setting myself up for a quick in-and-out trip or I could risk a longer excursion, in exchange for greater rewards. I elect for a simple quest to collect some iron and went into the mine.
The mine is dark, save for some illumination cast by some glowing stones. Everything is delivered in a beautiful pixel-art style, and the interface is strongly reminiscent of Stardew Valley. There is a row of currently equipped items to choose from. I could equip a torch but instead, draw my sword.
The entire world of Below the Stone exists underground and is procedurally generated. Each run into the mines is different, offering a fresh experience every time. As I navigate around the subterranean passages, I encounter some odd lizard-like creatures. They’re aggressive, but a series of arcing swipes from my sword made quick work of them, and I push onward.
Players familiar with Minecraft will be at home with the mining mechanics. Everything is made up of blocks, which can be destroyed with a few swings of a pickaxe. Different ores have different colors and textures on their surface, telegraphing what you will find if you mine a certain one.
I tore into one wall with my pickaxe, harvesting some useful stones. I could have returned to the open paths of the mine, but I decided to see what would happen if I kept making my own tunnel. It wasn’t long before I emerged in a new chamber, far from where the original path would have taken me.
Escape with your life (and loot)
In short order, I acquire all the iron I needed for the bounties I had signed up for and was ready to head back. Returning to the Dwarven Kingdom requires me to call on the Drill Pod, a combination drill/personnel carrier that tunnels to me like a subterranean taxi. It’s summoned instantly, but I was told the final version would require you to survive while the Drill Pod makes its way to the player, adding one last layer of danger before you return to safety.
You need to be cautious while exploring below the surface. Improvements in the Dwarven Kingdom are permanent, but the same cannot be said of your character. Below the Stone is a roguelike, and dying has consequences. If your character dies, you lose any progress made on that expedition and also sacrifice anything you are carrying. That creates a risk/reward system around good equipment. Do you wear your best armor to increase your chances of survival? Or do you leave it at home, so as not to risk losing it in the event of an untimely death?
During my exploration, I crossed several biomes, each with a unique look and theme. These themes will tie into the gameplay as well. An ice biome may require anti-slip boots, for example. The biomes exist on each of the five descending levels of Below the Surface, adding yet more potential variety to your exploration.
My adventures underground were fun, and the tone of the game strikes a nice balance between whimsical personality and high-stakes roguelike exploration. Below the Stone swings its pickax onto Steam, Switch, PlayStation, and Xbox sometime in 2022.
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