Below hands-on: lonely, vulnerable, gorgeous
The very first thing I notice when I start playing Below is how tiny I am. Noticing this makes Kris Piotrowski, Creative Director at Capybara Games, extremely happy. "That's the point," he says. I'm supposed to feel vulnerable, miniscule, and alone. Even in a crowd of gamers who are getting their first taste of Capy's upcoming roguelike, I do feel alone.
Below's protagonist washes up on the shores of a mysterious island, where he or she (the character is too tiny to make out a gender) must wander and explore and figure out what's going on. One would imagine from the title that you'll have to delve into dungeons, and you do. But not at first. There are unanswered questions on the surface of the island before I even get to any of the game's procedurally-generated caverns. "What's that lighthouse?" I wonder out loud, and start making my way across the terrain. Piotrowski doesn't stop me, even when I hit a dead end. "In the full game, you may have a reason to come back here." he tells me. He definitely won't tell me why, and only encourages me to keep exploring. I happily oblige.
Capybara helped create pixel-art classic Sword & Sworcery: EP with Superbrothers, and while Below isn't a retro-looking game, there are still similarities in the color palette and, occasionally, the game's perspective. At first I feel like I'm looking at my character from an overhead perspective, but certain areas look more like a two-dimensional, horizontal scrolling view. My limited view also distorts depending on far away some things are—less like fog of war and more like an unfocused phone pic at the edges.
Another element Below shares with Sworcery is its sound design, with music again penned by Sworcery composer Jim Guthrie. Even on a crowded convention floor and with Piotrowski talking into my ear, I can hear how Guthrie's understated music will make me feel even more isolated on the island.
Below's combat takes cues from games such as The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker and Dark Souls. You start with a simple sword and shield, with access to basic slashes, running overhead strikes, and shield blocks and bashes. You'll also find two-handed weapons later in the game—I used both a bow and a spear—and can switch between both sets. Timing your attacks against the patterns of the island's various creatures is critical, as you're committed to each blow and can't cancel out.
Unlike the above games, however, you can't auto-target an enemy. Piotrowski tells me that he left the feature out because he wanted to keep combat dangerous. That's also why you start with a single hit point, and why even the smallest of scratches will make your character start to bleed out, requiring bandaging before your heart completely shrinks. I find this out quickly when I encounter a trap in the game's dungeon, which fires a dart at me unexpectedly. I have too little time to quaff a healing potion before I bleed to death, leaving my tiny corpse and the few items I have on the ground. By the time my next incarnation arrives at the corpse, it's nothing but a pile of bones and twinkling items to pick up. How much time has passed?
I get the feeling that will be one more mystery to solve. Even from my 30-minute session, I can see a lot of potential for both streaming playthroughs and, once the community solves its puzzles, Spelunky-like speedruns. Piotrowski says Capy hasn't set a release date for Below, and that the team is picking up a lot of feedback from reactions at PAX East, where the game was making its playable debut.