Below begins with your adventurer sitting on a beach on a gloomy and rainy day. You walk across the soggy sand to a cliff wall, climb it, find a path, mount a series of stone steps, and finally, at the very top, enter a dark doorway. Then you go below, on a long, dark, perilous trip into the depths of the mysterious mountain. Your character is small, hardly more than a tiny flicker of light in the murky shadows of sprawling caverns filled with traps, treasures, monsters, and mysteries.
I got to play a preview build of Below this week, and I’m already quite taken with the spooky and atmospheric roguelike coming to us from Capybara Games. It's a fairly brutal game that doesn’t treat you like a friend, gently taking your hand and showing you graciously around its caverns. During my first game, in my first cave, I immediately I spotted what looked like a tiny stone pyramid sitting on the floor, so I walked up to it and was unceremoniously skewered by spikes. Well, I guess that’s what a spike trap looks like! Now I’ll know for next time.
You need to eat and drink regularly in Below, and while water isn’t too hard to find, food sometimes can be depending on how generous the roguelike’s algorithm is feeling. One of my lives ended simply because I couldn’t find food in time to stave off starvation, and I flopped over face-first into a puddle. My deathflop, and Below's animation in general, is wonderfully done, even on characters so tiny you can barely make them out on your screen. When I discovered I could trip over a rope, I did it repeatedly because it's so much fun to watch:
Like many cave-craving adventurers, you begin with a simple sword and shield. Combat is of the satisfying hack-and-slash variety, with some block-and-hack, and often hack-and-miss, as the enemies I fought—black skittering bug-like things—are quite good at dodging, and sometimes they'll even flee until they find back-up bugs to assist them (I love when monsters value their own lives). A couple of the bigger bugs even had shields that looked like shards of crystal, which can take several swipes to destroy.
If you’re hit you may begin bleeding, requiring curative consumables to stem the slow but certain flow of blood. Or, you may have to hightail it back to one of your campfires, stick your blade in the flames, and cauterize the wound, an impressively visceral experience considering your character is so darn tiny (the audio as you gasp when pressing the sizzling blade to your wound sells it very well).
While bugs and bats are the only enemies I lived long enough to meet, promotional screenshots, like the one below, shows what appear to be humanoid enemies as well.
Crafting is a bit of a guessing game, where you pick three resources and try to combine them to see if they make something. Sometimes it feels perfectly logical: I quickly learned to make a torch and bandages using items you would actually use to make them in real life. Other times, it's a little silly: after killing some bats I cut off their wings and discovered they could be combined to make an arrow. A squishy, leathery arrow? Okay. Inventory is pretty limited, though if you go to sleep at a campfire you awaken in a safe ‘pocket’ cavern, where you can store your extra goodies in a chest, refill your water bottles, and craft items without having to worry that some monster is slithering up to bite you while you're messing around in the menu. If you die during a game, the items stored in the pocket cave will remain for your future doppelgangers.
I also stumbled upon a few treasure caves, small secluded caverns typically stocked with a couple of extra torches, some crafting resources, water, and one time, a spear. I instantly fell in love with the spear. Though it was a two-handed weapon, meaning I couldn’t hold a torch or a shield, it gave me more range for my attacks and made much quicker, safer, and easier work of enemies. When I entered a new area teeming with Belowbugs, I was able to stand on a narrow ledge and poke them all to death as they swarmed.
I should point out that the build I played was meant to demonstrate gameplay on the PAX show floor, so the difficulty was ramped up and the crafting was stripped down in order to prevent visitors hogging the game for too long. Even still, my deaths (except maybe the starvation one) felt perfectly fair, the result of me simply not being cautious enough.
Despite the game being so dark, and your hero being so small, the art in Below is fantastic, full of character, and well-animated. The sound and music are equally good and a perfect match for the visuals. A pitch-black cave full of monsters and traps feels like a strange place to feel at home, but I can't to go below again.