Below's world is dark, dangerous, and teeming with secrets

After going dark for the past few years (our last preview is from 2014), Capybara's 2D roguelike Below is back under the spotlight. Light seems like an inappropriate metaphor, though. Below is a dark, violent game. 

I played it sitting with creative director Kris Piotrowski at PAX East last week, my session opening on a deserted beach beset by storms. Lightning briefly illuminates an abandoned campfire. I leave behind a small ship bobbing offshore and climb the bluff above to grab a lantern. With it, I open a magical cave at the top of the hill by shining its light at the rocky door and step into the deeper darkness of the cave. 

Only minutes later, I'm surrounded by red, crystalline enemies the size of dogs. Spike traps protrude from the grassy terrain, barely visible in the low light. Death comes quickly and without fanfare. The only mark my tiny hero is going to leave on this world is a corpse.

It only gets darker from here

I sprint past the campfire just within the cave and head for the stairs down. The camera is distant, the way I remember it in Below’s first announcement trailer from 2013. Tracking my tiny adventurer across the screen isn’t difficult though. I have my lantern lit, but even if I didn’t, the way the grass parts around me makes me stand out in the darkness. 

I have a sword and shield as protection. I can slash wildly with my sword, hide behind my shield and occasionally stab out at foes, or take a running leap followed by a downward slash. Piotrowski cites Wind Waker and Breath of the Wild as influences, saying that Legend of Zelda games often have his favorite combat feel. 

Although it isn’t visually apparent (Below’s morose aesthetic and tiny hero don’t immediately call the Hero of Time to mind) I begin to see the similarities after spending some time taking out the shiny red crystal enemies that infest the top floors. The adventurer’s quick footwork and rhythm of slashing, guarding, and leaping feels pleasantly familiar having grown up in the Ocarina of Time era. The combat moves quickly, without any slow wind-up animations, which lets me take out groups of enemies at a snappy pace.

The first floor is gloomy, but begins to look positively cheerful as lower floors get even darker. I hold up my lantern, casting a direct line of light that pushes away the fog. I have an obsessive need to clear out fog of war in any game that includes it, which was my first goal in every new room I encountered. This is the perfect motivation to search the corners for secrets and in the next room I find a small stone tablet that's a key to the stairs down. The floors are newly generated each time an adventurer dies, but Piotrowski explains that once you’ve opened the stairs to each level once they'll remain open for subsequent lives.

On the next floor, I grow over-confident. As I sprint around slashing at enemies and collecting the little gems of light they leave behind, I stumble face-first into a set of spikes. Dead on impact, I awaken as a new tiny hero on the beach. This time, Piotrowski directs me a bit to make sure I find the other secrets the demo has to offer. 

A sprinkle of survival

In the cave entry I initially sprinted past, Piotrowski points out a small stream I can squeeze through to find an exit to the shore I woke up on. On my way out I find a fishing spear I can use to stab at fish in little pools of water around the early levels of the cave. 

Given my first untimely death, I didn’t initially encounter the survival elements in Below. You need to manage health, hunger, thirst, and temperature. On the higher floors I encounter the first three concerns, lower in the caves I eventually find the temperature dropping as well. 

I spend a bit of time fiddling with the crafting system before taking off on my next attempt, standing in a small pool of water to fill bottle then, at the campfire, combining the water bottle with a turnip, a fish, and some fox meat. It creates soup (Below’s take on health potions) that refills health, hunger, and a bit of thirst. Although any three items can be thrown together to make a basic soup, Piotrowski says specific combinations discovered later on might have additional effects. The crafting is an unassuming layer on top of the combat and exploration that are Below’s focus. 

The survival elements take a back seat to spelunking. Back in the caves, I try using my fishing spear as a weapon. It does a lot of damage and can be used to charge forward in a line if I hold down the attack button, but doesn’t serve well as a defensive tool. Knowing my own reckless nature, I switch back to the sword and shield.

Tools of the trade

As the adventure continues, campfires become waypoints by spending 25 of the gems of light collected from dead enemies. Only one campfire can be used as a waypoint at a time, however, so there are other ways to reach particular cavern depths. I find the first near the end of my time with the demo: a rickety wooden elevator that goes from the second floor to the top of the hill above the beach.

Piotrowski hesitates to refer to boss fights within Below—it isn’t a concept that meshes well the quiet and brooding atmosphere that Capybara Games is working towards—but does concede that there are occasional enemies meant to be fought one-on-one rather than in the hordes I encountered in the demo.

Below is difficult, as intended. If I’m not bleeding out from an encounter with my little red friends, I’m contending with an empty stomach or dry mouth. And then when all my survival meters are topped off I get incautious and sprint directly into a spike trap. Despite the numerous deaths, I didn’t feel frustrated. It’s difficult to mourn my little nameless heroes. 

Now that Below is back on the show floor in front of players, Capybara expects to release in the second half of 2018. For years, Below’s trailer has been the only proof the project still exists. My half hour with the demo at PAX East was welcome reassurance not only that Below is finally close to ready, but that the team at Capy remains eager to see it out in the world.  While a lot has changed since Below was announced in 2013 when 'souls-like' wasn't such a cliche, its sure-footed combat and foggy caverns remain alluring.