It takes a good amount of self-awareness to recognize that something you’ve done – something you’ve been working on for the better part of ten years – isn’t perfect. Below had a long development cycle, and when it finally launched, it did so with more of a whisper than a bang. Critics loved its mood, and its constant sense of dark discovery. Yet, Below was difficult in a way that felt unfair.
That’s me. I am “critics.” I didn’t write a review, but I agree with many of the chief criticisms. Death felt cheap, especially at the hands of barely visible traps or because you ran out of bat chunks to eat. Many of the systems felt in conflict. More specifically, all of the survival mechanics discouraged exploration. It was a toxic environment for a game with so many things to find.
In a relatively rare move, Capybara Games went back to the drawing board, listened to the feedback, and released an adjusted version of the game. The gesture feels a bit unprecedented, but it’s perfectly timed with the PlayStation 4 debut of Below. In the dozen or so hours I’ve spent with the new Explore mode, I can’t appreciate it more. This turns a game I had incredibly complicated feelings about into a game that I can’t get enough of.
The jist of Below is the same as it always was. You are a little adventurer who appears on the shores of a mysterious island. Armed with a magical lantern, you descend into the depths of it’s subterranean world. Cave systems give way to dead civilizations, and the deeper you go, the more dangerous your findings. Upon death, a new adventurer shows up, and has to pick up where the last one left off, until the sum of all of their efforts leads to the bottom of the island and reveals its greatest secret.
Like many hardcore action RPGs that have arrived since Dark Souls, Below puts the screws to you early and often. You will die a lot in your search for the island’s secrets. Getting from floor to floor isn’t as easy as just walking to a staircase. There are indigenous creatures who find you to be a nuisance. Traps that will snare you and carve you up. Puzzles and locks to be solved and dismantled. To progress, perseverance and preparedness are key.
Explore mode makes doing all of that feel more achievable now. Previously, the survival mechanics made recovering from death feel impossible. Hunger and thirst, staple mechanics of many survival games, felt like oppressive timers in Below. Having to divert your efforts from traveling deeper to hunt and gather for food felt like a chore, especially as you get deeper and food becomes more scarce. Dying of starvation never felt fair, and solving these thirst and hunger problems never felt fun. So now, most things that you formerly used for these now just restore health.
All the damage you take from all sources is now bleed damage. You’ll lose a bit of health on the top, but a portion of your meter will also turn red. This red bit will tick away slowly unless you stop it by wrapping it up in a bandage or cauterizing it in a fire. The extra time this gives you to save yourself is welcome. It doesn’t necessarily take away from the challenge of combat in Below. But it doesn’t make getting surprised by an errant ranged attack or a trap (which no longer 1-hit kill) a death sentence. There always feels like there is a counterplay, and that added agency makes the challenge reasonable.
Maybe the biggest feature is that this is an entirely separate mode. If you liked Below the way it was, Survive Mode exists to continue to punish you as normal. For me, Explore mode is the Rosetta Stone that finally helped me speak Below’s language. It’s out today, April 7th, on PC and Xbox One and (finally) PlayStation 4.
This game was played on a Standard PlayStation 4 system with a review code provided by a PR representative of the game.