A project five years in the making Below is a punishing roguelike that sees players explore through the murky depths of a vast network of caves. It features permadeath, procedural generation and all the usual trimmings but also encapsulates elements of crafting and survival further heightening the challenge and taking the emphasis away from combat. It may not cater to all players with its excessive backtracking and complete absence of instruction but we feel that there's plenty of enjoyment hidden within its depths should you feel compelled to push on and explore.
Your adventure begins as your ship collides with the rain-drenched shore of a mysterious island. You soon take shelter from the raging thunderstorm outside and begin your descent into the shadowy cave system beneath you. It's not clear from this point who you are, what's your purpose, or where you are going. Develop Capybara keeps these elements purposely ambiguous and its completely up to the player to figure out mechanics such as crafting, survival and combat. Your first few hours will be spent learning these very basics and making the many fatal mistakes that will start to shape your playstyle so that you can continue your pursuit for even longer.
Below's formula features a dash of Zelda charm due to its top-down perspective, dungeon exploring and close quarters swordplay but it also has its own creepy allure. Exploration is the general focus as (much like it is the for the adventurer) nothing is abundantly clear and the main driving force is what mysteries you may find during your descent. Each playthrough is procedurally generated too shifting up the layout of each floor and helping to keep things fresh and cementing the sense of wonder discovery upon each adventure. This is important as permadeath is present here and you'll have to make your way back from the very start when you inevitably slip up and die.
Below's combat can feel punishing as one strike can lead you to bleed out if you don't have a supply of bandages on hand. It feels also thrust on the player as light shards dropped by enemies are vital for fast travel and illuminating areas in pitch black. Encounters usually take place in cramped locations and really push the player to read their foes and time dodges and slashes when required. Survival also plays a vital role and you'll have to manage levels such as your food and water supplies as well as having bandages to patch any fresh wounds. You'll also need to maintain a light source either by using your lantern or crafting torches as caverns are eerily dark and without seeing what's ahead you could stumble into a spike trap.
The threat becomes heightened the further you descend into the depths as the layouts of floors become more complex, there are tougher elements such as the cold and foes require more attention to with your dashes and attacks. Due to this, you will have to rely on methods to continue your progress when you die and Below has a couple of options despite permadeath being a prominent part of its DNA. Similar to Dark Souls you can find shortcuts to more easily link back to the floor you are on and there's also campfires where you can spend 25 light shards for a fast travel point. It should be noted though that these checkpoints are just for one time use so once used you won't be able to revisit them on the next playthrough.
We found ourselves in a constant state of internal conflict as we pushed through in Below. We had to act quick so our vitals didn't drain, but we had to take our time to find a shortcut and we had to defeat enemies to earn light orbs but at the same time we needed to avoid all potentially fatal actions. This made every decision feel crucial and forced us to play attentively as we always felt like we were one poorly made decision away from death. Death always felt crippling but it pushed us to become smarter by learning new crafting recipes, experimenting with ranged weapons and defeating the temptation to rush. The flipside of this was that Below often felt like a stressful affair and it was difficult to push through for more than one playthrough at a time.
Minimalist would perhaps be the most fitting way to describe Below's artistic pursuit from both a visual and musical standpoint. Each new cavern we ventured through was pitch black and cloaked in thick fog which juxtaposed beautifully against the player's fleeting torchlight and the piercing red gaze of enemies. The music provided by songwriter Jim Guthrie echoes this and the hum of synthesisers and gentle strums of the guitar present worked to replicate feelings of both isolation and dread. Sometimes the music is completely absent and the focus is instead on the audio design which can feel wonderfully jarring as it highlights the crackles of the campfire, the rustling of the wind and the footsteps of your enemies off in the distance.
As callous and unforgiving as it can be we still had a great time with Below. Its punishing difficulty forced us to adapt and to pay constant attention to our actions and ambiguous concept coupled with its striking visual style urged us to explore even deeper. Its excessive backtracking and lack of instruction may not suit everybody but we certainly wouldn't give this charming indie a miss if you're a classic Zelda fan in search of a challenge.