Rushing through is missing the point
Ever since Below was teased at Microsoft's E3 press briefing last year, it's been one of the titles that I've been most intrigued by. The art style and the fact that Capy Games was the developer were the two main reasons for my interest. Okay, those were the only reasons, because pretty much nothing else about Below has been revealed.
Capy's finally showing Below off at PAX East, and it is nothing like I expected it to be. That aside, my excitement remains completely intact.
When I see an artistic indie title, I subconsciously assume that it's an inviting game. It might not necessarily be easy, but something that anyone can eventually get the hang of. Below doesn't look to be like that, as it's a procedurally-generated rogue-like that's meant to appeal to the hardcore demographic.
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To say that Below doesn't hold your hand would be a vast understatement. It sort of dumps you onto an island to begin with, leaving you to figure things out on your own. After a slow ascent up a mountain and wandering about a few screens, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. This was a very intentional decision by the developers, as exploration is one of the key directions of the game.
Rather, exploration very well might be the main underlying theme of the gameplay. Below features no dialogue or text. The entire narrative is told through events and scenes that are found. Capy explained that it didn't want to spell the story out, instead opting to let players piece things together as they discover new areas and progress.
Advancement isn't something that's necessarily going to be easy, however. Equipped with a sword and shield, the protagonist only has one hit point. Once wounded, he'll eventually bleed out, negating any progress made. There are a few ways around this though. Health potions can be found that will stop the bleeding for instance. Also, there are fire pits where the player can cauterize his wounds. More importantly, these spots serve as checkpoints of sorts where the player's returned in the event of death.
Don't think you're going to not die. It's going to happen. A lot. Each "life" brings brand new screens full of different enemies and traps that are waiting for you to make a mistake. It's a lot like Spelunky in the sense that you're immediately frustrated with yourself for every death, as a bit more caution would've made it completely avoidable.
After dying, you don't respawn as yourself. You come back as the next in your family lineage, determined to solve the mystery that led to the undoing of your ancestor. However, dying isn't totally negative in that the corpses of your relatives can be looted for items such as fuel for your lantern. If nothing else, they serve as a frustrating reminder of your ineptitude mere minutes before.
While exploring the surroundings is important, the primary goal (as the title suggests) is to keep moving downward. As you work your way through the depths, there are huge (and, of course, randomly generated) dungeons that have to traversed. When asked what's significant about these dungeons, such as bosses, that make them feel more important than the outside world, Capy ducked the question. All they would say besides that they weren't ready to talk about that yet is "There are antagonists, and they're real bad," studio head Nathan Vella stated to Destructoid.
It sounds like Below is set up to go in a very dark direction, which is interesting because it kind of directly conflicts with the aesthetics. The overworld looks great, with the rain and mist effects adding a sense of tranquility. Even the areas of the screen that are faded into darkness have a way about them that's peaceful. The music that we heard falls right in line and compliments what's happening on-screen too.
But, it seems like that quiet peacefulness won't permeate the entire experience. As I saw first-hand after many deaths, the general public's going to consider it tougher than the average game. When you wander into "hardcore" territory, the Demon's/Dark Souls franchise inevitably gets brought up. Capy didn't say that Below draws inspiration from this series. Rather, it had the idea before Souls, and those games' receptions just reassured the developers that there's actually a market for this kind of title.
Where this differs from action games is that you'll want to take your time and explore as much as you can. After all, exploration leads to discovery, and that's exactly what Capy wants you to do. "It's like pulling a thread on a sweater," Nathan commented. "You just want to keep pulling to see what happens."
He's right; I do want to see what happens. The developers said that now that the public's gotten its hands on the game, they'll reveal information about Below at a more regular pace. However, I couldn't help but feel like they'll still stay relatively silent about most of it. After all, Below's an experience best figured out by yourself.