There’s much to admire about Below — and plenty to deplore. It’s pleasing on the eye, but often dull to play. It pulls me forward with the temptation of discovery, while forcing me to retrace well-trod paths. It offers up familiar gameplay tropes, simultaneously teasing me with new forms of devilry.
Slugging away at this overhead-view, dungeon-exploration roleplaying game can feel like a chore. Yet each time I swear off the game, I find myself back for more, sure that this time, I’ll resolve its mysteries.
The story begins on a bleak, storm-lashed beach and progresses downwards, into dripping underground caverns, carefully rendered in smart color schemes. Each level has its own theme: a mossy vault, icy world, zombie death machine, and so on.
I explore rooms. I fight mobs. I collect stuff. I craft. In this sense, it’s a lot like the countless other action role-playing games of this era. But as I move deeper, it slowly morphs into a carefully constructed rebuke to standard assumptions about its contemporaries.
Wandering its lovely lanes and rooms for 30 hours or more, I’ve had time to ponder what this game is trying to say to me. But I’m not sure I’m even close to the answer. And I’m certainly a long, long way from finishing.
Meaning of death
Below is a role-playing roguelike. Death means going back to the beginning to start all over again. As a result, I spend most of my time exploring, collecting, fighting and crafting in familiar territory until something strikes me down. That’s the short term. The long-term strategy is really about management of my own deaths. Where I die, how I die and what I carry when I die is just as important as anything I do while I’m alive.
Important caveats to Below’s stringent permadeath come with their own caveats. My old, dead body waits for my new explorer, and gives up its inventory. That’s good. But getting to that old, dead body requires that I build up a new inventory, just to make it that far, which is not so good.
I can find shortcuts to the deeper dungeons, skipping the tedium of early levels. But they are not easy to find, and, in any case, the early levels are rich in resources, which I’ll probably want to harvest.
Bonfires await my traveler throughout the game, often at the intersection of levels. I can use these to create fast-travel warps. But they only work once before requiring replenishment.
There’s a room, called a Pocket, where I can store excess inventory, squirreling away food and weapons for a later run. However, the temptation to use limited, valuable resources right now, rather than maybe later, is strong.
While Below offers useful ways to cheat the inconvenience of death, the reality is one where I spend a lot of time scouring the places I’ve plundered many times before. It’s true that an element of procedural generation is built into environmental design — meaning that rooms change from one playthrough to the next — but these variations are only of marginal consequence.
A room on Level 3 will always be a collection of mossy, stony lanes and crevices, dotted with pools and spike-traps. It will always have one, two or three doors.
Likewise, the maps on each level change every time, but the important rooms, which lead to extra resources or to lower levels, are, so far as a I can glean, always found in roughly the same place.
This random generation relieves the boredom of repetition only slightly. More fundamental to the game’s continuing appeal is how it looks and sounds. Below is crafted with deeply competent artistry, coupled with an excellent soundtrack and audio effects.
It places the tiny protagonist at the center of a giant diorama of decay, emphasizing my isolation and my sense of inconsequence within the world I explore. I am a tough little warrior with my weapons and my shield, but I am also vulnerable. I enter the dungeons with a full understanding that death awaits me.
My character is highly reminiscent of the original Link in Nintendo’s classic The Legend of Zelda. But there’s a key difference that marks Below as a subversive addition to the genre. Back in 1986, Link was warned by an early-game NPC that “it’s dangerous to go alone.” He gains the support of awaiting NPCs. But our little hero is emphatically a solitary figure, questing through a world of indifferent caverns. There are no waiting sages, with their helpful tips and shiny gifts.
Each room is a one-screen puzzle, swaddled in mist and blurring deliciously at the edges as the focus changes. I follow trails, encountering mobs. These come in ever-more menacing forms. At first, they are little more than yapping mites, easily killed with a swipe of my sword. Later, fully armed sentries test my fighting abilities. They can only be killed by guile, or by using different weapons, like a spear or a bow.
Individually, most enemies are easy enough to figure out. But when allied with the unforgiving peril of resource shortages, they become deadly.
While in this world, I must eat and drink and stay warm. Collecting stuff takes up a lot of my time and demands extreme patience. I plod through familiar rooms, picking up bits and bobs, just as I have done dozens of times before.
Storing stuff is strategically essential. Generally, I will die frantically seeking out food or warmth, my health seeping away as I encounter mobs who guard a life-saving potato, water hole or heat brazier. I develop strategies based on sacrificing lives in the pursuit of stores, which might benefit later generations of me.
Value of repetition
The most dangerous monsters I encounter can be cleared from afar, making use of a bow. It’s a bit fiddly, but it’s good enough, in a pinch. Arrows are made by collecting materials and crafting.
Collecting means repetition and time-consuming busy-ness, demanding that I pay my dues in terms of picking up shards and digging up turnips and looting dead bodies. This tedium is not a design flaw. It’s the entire point. The designers know I will die, often. They want death to sting.
If I die in an inconvenient place, my new life might be spent doing 90 percent of the things I did in my previous life, getting back to that original spot, in the hope that I’ll spend 10 percent of my lifespan pushing into unexplored territory.
There are times when this is a generous calculation, when my new life achieves less than my old life, when my new corpse offers fewer resources than my old corpse. These are the moments when I wonder why I’m playing this game, which wastes my time and makes me feel like an idiot.
Tough games generally reward me by offering up small lessons, each time I die. In most games, I’ll notice that the big Dark Souls-y boss I’m trying to kill has a particular movement or flaw, and I test that weak spot until I discover the answer.
But Below’s lives are often meaningless and mundane. It is not uncommon for me to spend an hour traveling down to my corpse, only to die within a few feet of my goal. When this happens, I howl. I turn off my PC. I vow to never return. After a short while, I return.
Why? I can’t say for sure, but I think it’s a desire to simply understand what the fuck is going on with this game. One of its greatest joys is grappling with its demonic determination to keep me in the dark.
Below offers no tutorial, no guidance about its arcane systems. Even after all these hours of play, there are fundamental pillars of design that I don’t fully understand. The interplay of discoverable keys and marbles and light domes and shards and stone monuments is an unfolding mystery.
This doesn’t seem to be a case of the developers laying out a carefully plotted narrative, coyly peeling its secrets. It’s a statement that play is about discovery, even when the thing being discovered is the game’s basic rules.
At one point, after some hours in, I come across a room, blocked by lumber. I shoot the wood with a fire arrow, and am astonished that it actually works, just like it would in a “normal” video game. I’m so brutalized by this game that I’m grateful when it does something that seems ordinary.
The goal of Below is to plumb as far into its depths as possible, to reach new levels. But even this simple target is disturbed by devious design decisions. I find one of my lives to be charmed, perhaps by my own careful planning or maybe by pure luck, and I gain a bunch of levels. Have I achieved something special, or have I missed something crucial? I ought to feel triumphant, but instead I am unsettled.
I respect this nonchalance about Below. It manipulates me, but not in the usual way of game design, which is obsessed with my approval, with creating guarantees of engagement.
Below’s best quality is that it does not seem to be worried about my happiness or my expectations. If anything, it wants me to suffer; it demands that I spend hours in a stew of boredom and outrage.
Below doesn’t care. Play or don’t play. Its point, so far as I can tell, isn’t to beg me to stick around, but to dare me to walk away.
It’s a brute of a game. I think I like it. But I’m not sure. Ask me in another 30 hours.