Back during Microsoft's E3 conference in 2013, developer Capybara Games announced BELOW — a dungeon crawler meant to harken back to titles like the first Legend of Zelda, but with procedurally generated areas and permanent death mechanics that give it a roguelike flare. Things got complicated, though, and the game was in a lengthy development process up until December 14, when BELOW was released to both PC and Xbox One platforms. The game is finally here.

Unfortunately, BELOW isn't nearly as enjoyable as I was hoping. The game's presentation factor is absolutely stellar, with graphics and a score that dropped my jaw to the floor, but when it came to the actual gameplay I found myself gritting my teeth in frustration and boredom. Excruciatingly slow pacing and an overly-simplistic combat system taint what could have been a fantastic indie title to close 2018 with.

So beautiful, so flawed

BELOW

A taste of what could have been

BELOW's graphics and music are nothing short of spectacular, but the incredibly disappointing gameplay experience leaves a lot to be desired.

About this review

This review was conducted on a Windows 10 PC equipped with an Intel i7-8700K processor, an NVIDIA GeForce 1050Ti graphics card, and 16GB of RAM, using a review copy of the game provided to Windows Central.

What you'll love about BELOW

Without a doubt, the best thing BELOW has going for it is its presentation. BELOW is a game about exploring an intimidating, mysterious, and vast network of caves found underneath an island surface, and both the visuals and music compliment this perfectly. BELOW is a dark, moody game that lets you see just enough of the area around your character so that you feel like you can see your character and their immediate surroundings, but it hides areas that are farther away from you in pitch blackness, which keeps you on edge as you approach them. Crafting torches or lighting a campfire will give you a means to rectify this, and in these moments, BELOW's excellent use of color really shines. The bright orange and yellow of your flames sharply contrast against the damp blues and mossy greens of the cave interiors, which makes you feel like you're truly lighting your way.

BELOW's score is a masterpiece in every sense of the word.

In terms of the music, BELOW's tracks are unsettling, intense, and hopeful all at once. One minute, you'll be listening to a cacaphony of deep oboes and horns that gives off vibes of uneasiness; the next, a hopeful melody of acoustic guitars will sound as you light your next campfire. This soundtrack seems to have a mind of its own, knowing exactly when and how to nudge the player's mood towards feeling fearful, relieved, or alert. It is a masterpiece in every sense of the word.

Another great aspect of BELOW is the procedurally generated areas. Despite the rest of the gameplay's numerous problems (we'll get to that soon) the one thing about BELOW that I genuinely loved was how each room felt unique and different in shape. Aside from some specific fixed locations, every area you discover in BELOW is generated randomly, and that means that the layouts very rarely get repetitive. This helps create a sense of discovery for the player.

What you'll love less about BELOW

BELOW's biggest weakness is its gameplay. Aside from the well done procedural generation of levels, the combat systems feel way too basic and lack a lot of the depth that I was hoping for. Your character is equipped with a bow, a sword, and a shield; The majority of the time, you'll be using the sword and shield as enemies are typically found in groups. Admittedly, there are a few tricks you can pull off — holding your shield button before attacking lets you poke with your sword from behind your defenses, for example — but there's not many of them. For the most part, all you can really do is run, block, or swing. You can probably imagine why being limited to such a basic moveset feels so bland.

This wouldn't be a big problem if the game had a good amount of non-combat elements, but it doesn't. There's a crafting system, but you'll never use it to do anything other then cook some basic food for survival or make torches to see with. The sheer amount of fighting in the game is rarely offset by puzzles to solve either, and the puzzles that are there are woefully simplistic and easy to complete. A game that relies on its combat this much needs mechanics that are engaging and exciting, and overall, BELOW's are neither.

The pacing of BELOW is also excruciatingly slow, to the point where I had to resist the urge to simply stop playing for the purpose of this review. The game does thankfully pick up after a few hours of play, but the road to that point is a rocky one.

The pacing of BELOW is excruciatingly slow.

This issue gets even worse if you die and have to start over at the beginning of the island in true roguelike fashion. While there are shortcuts and hidden passages you can find this time around that make your second route through the caves easier, it still takes a decent amount of time to reach the corpse of your previous character and get your stuff back. Overall, the experience just starts off monotonous and is never really able to shake that monotony off fully.

Lastly, there's an annoying lack of basic control features here that I don't understand. You can't remap any of your keys, which is a must in any PC title. In addition, there's no way to choose which control schemes the in-game prompts display. Even though I didn't play BELOW with an Xbox One controller, the game assumed that I was using one and showed me Xbox buttons when doing things like standing next to objects I could interact with. This forced me to open the menu and look at the keybindings constantly as I learned the controls, which wasted my time. This is likely a bug, but nevertheless, it ground my gears.

Should you buy BELOW?

Despite my love for the art direction and music of BELOW, the gameplay's flaws have led me to ultimately dislike the game overall. It's not completely bad, but a lot of it feels shallow and bland compared to other roguelikes.

Pros:

  • Gorgeous visual aesthetic.
  • Superb musical score.
  • Great procedurally generated levels.

Cons:

  • Excruciatingly slow pacing.
  • Shallow combat mechanics.
  • Lack of control customization features.

3 out of 5

If you enjoy very slow gameplay pacing and don't mind simplistic combat mechanics, then I'd say BELOW is worth a shot. Otherwise, I recommend passing on this, or waiting for a sale.

So beautiful, so flawed

BELOW

A taste of what could have been

BELOW's graphics and music are nothing short of spectacular, but the incredibly disappointing gameplay experience leaves a lot to be desired.

BELOW is available now on PC and Xbox One for $25. It's also available with Xbox Game Pass.

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