The last time I played Below was almost four years ago. PAX East 2014 was the first time it was playable, and as Capybara Games has always made odd, specific games that appeal to me almost on a frighteningly direct level, but Below is a on an entirely new level. It’s a rogue-like that takes after Zelda in its perspective and gameplay, and it was an adventure I was ready to go on.
But year after year Capy led us on, and now, four years after that first time I saw it, it appears again, after Capy had specifically said that they would only show it again when they are ready to release it. I have good news: they’re ready to release it. I was told by one of the developers that the title is in its final stages of polish. He was hesitant to give any kind of date, but said it’d realistically be in the second half of 2018. After my demo, I described the game to him as, “knowing what it is better than it has before,” and he agreed, happy to hear the game has gotten to that point.
\A lot has changed since my preview all those years ago. The biggest is how much of a survival game Below truly is, finally coming to the front of view, standing more proudly now as a part of Below’s core DNA. There are visible warmth/food/water meters that you have to manage. The game makes resources out of commonplace ideas, most specifically light.
The game starts you off at the surface level of an island, and the only thing there, aside from the entrance to the caves you’ll be traversing (presumably for the rest the game) is a series of obelisks that meet with a lantern, an item that acts very much as your guiding light through the depths of Below. Much like everything in Below, it drops when you die, only this item is so essential it has to be discovered if ever lost.
The core of what was in Below is still the same as when I saw it before: an isometric hack and slash adventure through the dungeons of a mysterious island, but the survival mechanics add a layer that made Below take form. It felt like something that had a stronger identity; something more aware of itself.
I spent a good amount of time with Below, and much like the most mysterious rogue-likes (specifically Spelunky, my favorite of them) the mysteries of how the mechanics worked started to unfold. There were items that I found along the way like a “Water Mask” that I slowly realized helped my needs meters, the water mask specifically made my thirst meter empty out much slower. Items I found scattered across the levels could be materials in crafting recipes that you can only compose, off of no apparent recipes, at the big bonfires you find between stages. The crystals that enemies drop are yet another resource that the lantern pulls from to stay lit, and having that light is important because of how dark the levels are, yes, but also because it can reveal traps, many of which will instantly kill you if you discover them in a less fortunate manner.
Below makes you think about all these items constantly, because everything can be applied in multiple ways. The crystals enemies dropped can be poured into a bonfire between stages to make it your new fast-travel checkpoint (done by turning the fire blue) so that when you inevitably die again and have to re-enter the cave from the surface of the island, you can jump right to this fire from the first bonfire you hit. The items, like meat from rats, radishes you find in the levels, and the sticks scattered throughout the floors can all be reused in different recipes of crafting. I was specifically told that soups would be a huge resource to make through your descent, as they’d keep you well fed and warm in your travels.
Honestly, I’m more excited for Below now than I ever was before. It has such a strong identity, and even though in my thirty minutes I died at least five times, crawling back down the levels and finding my body and continuing to explore left me anxious to just sit in a quiet room with Below and discover all its secrets. If it truly is releasing later this year, I think it’s absolutely one to look out for if you haven’t already been.