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BELOW PC review: An atmospheric world can't save a shallow experience

BELOW is finally here, but is it worth your time?

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.

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.

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.

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

Brendan Lowry is a Windows Central writer and Oakland University graduate with a burning passion for video games, of which he's been an avid fan since childhood. You'll find him doing reviews, editorials, and general coverage on everything Xbox and PC. Follow him on Twitter.

17 Comments
  • Just get an Xbox controller. It's going to be better than whatever you are using anyways. Also: There is a spear, which has a longer range than the sword (and you can spearfish with it for food) but you cannot use your shield. I've also crafted bandages, caltrops, and other things. Looks like you haven't actually *tried* the crafting system. Below is not an action-heavy game, and maybe that means it's not for you personally, but it is a much better game than your shallow review implies.
  • I grabbed this on game Pass so I'll give it a go, if it's not enjoyable, no harm, no foul.
  • Atmospheric. Spell Check!
  • And "experience" . Lol
  • I think this game will probably be misunderstood and become a cult classic. It's trying a new angle, and the mechanics and pacing aim to something different. I think it's a really good game. Some games are not for everybody, and that's fine, otherwise every game would be the same.
  • I’m sure for some this type of game is fun, it’s just not engaging enough to grab me personally. After the time I spent playing for the review I just have zero drive to turn the game on again.
  • Let me add a few more things that I really (although didn't want to) hate about this game: 1. The COMPLETE lack of tutorial, in any form.
    The game never explains about its basic control, environment, and any mechanism. I can't tell if a door is locked or broken or whatever, because the only prompt I get is a question mark, indifferently. There's no indication on what you might have missed, given the general visibility, or the lack thereof. I'm stuck at a place where I believe I've explored all rooms but there's no apparent pathway to the next level. There's one tower with a gate that doesn't seem to open, plus one cave sealed up by roots or vines and doesn't even give any prompt when approached. There's no feedback on what you are crafting or paying for. Like I spent 50 hard-earned gems the beginning of the game to turn orange bonfires blue, but nothing in the game tells me about what's so special about the new color. Just learned, a couple of days later, from a review that blue bonfires are supposed to be teleporters. I understand the developer intends to make "figuring things out" part of the fun. But you've got to give a tiny little help to get people started. 2. Incredibly small sprite.
    The wanderer is like a 20 x 20 pixels blob on a 4K display. This does make me feel small and uneasy, which is a good thing. But coupled with the total lack of tutorial, I can't tell what the **** my wanderer is doing. Like in my initial experimentation, I thought the X button is attack, because every time I hit it, the wanderer fidgets with his [whatever weapon]. The first hostile encounter nearly got me killed, because hitting the X button doesn't deliver any harm. Took me a life-and-death minute to realize RT is the actual attack button and X is just switching weapons. And I wasn't even aware that I had a shield until I read your review. The (nano-sized) reflection of the shield emblem makes me think it's the gem lantern. I'm not really disappointed. Rather, I'm super curious why such a plain/simple/straightforward/stripped down game can be delayed for a whopping five years. I mean, what is there to delay? What we have on the table is incredibly scarce, so what's there to polish for that long?
  • Try crafting a fire arrow and shooting it at those vines amigo 😁
  • Wait I can craft fire arrows? Been fooling around crafting for a long time and that option never came up. Accidentally made a bomb though, but there's no indication on how to use it, like put down & ignite or equip & throw. Gave it a blind try and it blew up right in my face, taking out a bonfire in the process. :-S
  • Another pointer, if you see rock formations that stand out to you at all, focus your lantern on it for a few seconds.
  • Tried the lantern on the seemingly openable tower gate. Burned a dozen gems but nothing happened. :-(
  • I had a hunch the blue flames was a teleport, which was confirmed after I died and went to the camp on the beach and saw the new option. In terms of hand holding the game harkens back to the 90's era and I actually like that. It'd be different if it was a vast open environment but given these are self contained rooms then you generally get the idea that what you need is going to be in your general area somewhere. Also I haven't come across them but I would assume vines burn, so torch or fire arrows?
  • Back in 1990s games came with manuals... Not a lot of literature, but just enough basics to get you going. Talking about that, I recall in Xbox One's early days, games actually have manuals packed into them, and can be called up mid-session and snapped to the side. That feature seems to have been axed in subsequent system updates?
  • Yeah, I remember the in built manual system, I never used it because every game had a tutorial so it was redundant (to me), I guess maybe that's why the feature quietly disappeared. And yeah, early games did have manuals so that is a fair point.
  • I have to say that I have already put around 20 hours into this game and it has me hooked! It may actually be my game of the year. The atmosphere is dark/creepy and the slow pacing matches it perfectly with the world. Every move needs to be deliberate. If you move fast you are likely to be killed quickly. I can admit that this game is definitely not for everyone but if you enjoy very challenging zelda-ish rogue like, give it a try! I can't put it down.
  • I agree with this review, overall, particularly the ambience and the soundtrack, which are superb. The music really does an incredible job of transitioning and setting the mood. That said, this is probably one of the most disappointing releases of this generation for me. I love Capybara's games, waited for this one for 5.5 years, only to be similarly frustrated by the gameplay, primarily 1. the permadeath, 2. the lack of guidance, 3. the survival aspect and 4. the procedural generation. Permadeath: I think that's cool that some people are masochists and like to re-do the same things over and over again, but I found it frustrating and tedious. Cheap deaths all around like barely visible spike traps or one-hit kill monsters, forcing me to replay the same things I already did, over and over again, is neither challenging nor fun. Lack of Guidance: The joy of discovery and figuring things out is something I can appreciate, but with absolutely no guidance whatsoever, it's just frustrating, especially when the HUD just assumes you understand its symbols. Dying in a game with permadeath because something wasn't clear is maddening. Survival aspect: The scarcity of food, especially in later levels, coupled with the fact you can only craft food combinations at campsites, which also are somewhat rare, and having to also watch your temperature and stay hydrated, becomes a chore. Procedural generation: I get what they were going for--in a game with permadeath in which you'll be forced to replay the same levels over and over, some procedural generation should help it stay somewhat fresh, but it doesn't. None of the rooms are that different from each other. They're just the same pieces re-arranged, slightly. Instead of having a PlayDead-esque, expertly crafted and edited experience of design, procedurally generated rooms here feels lazy, which is a shame, because I'm sure it was a huge programming feat for Capybara. Luckily, the game launched on Game Pass and I got to try it that way. Perhaps one day, if they patch it with some difficulty settings (e.g. remove permadeath) or if someone posts a superb guide online, I'll give it another shot, but, it seems more likely that Below is a game I wanted a half a decade for and will never feel the desire to finish, which is a shame.
  • Permadeath would feel much better if the first a few scenes can be skipped from the second time on, namely the beach, the island, and the first couple of empty chambers. These scenes don't change, and have nothing new to discover. Slowly running through them every single time is slowly driving me nuts.