One of the last games of the year is also one of the hardest, as the creators of Super Time Force make Dark Souls look easy.
Wed love to say we love Below. Weve been great fans of Capys previous work on games like Might & Magic: Clash Of Heroes, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, and Super Time Force and knew that theyve been working on this game, on and off, for over six years. Any game taking that long opens itself up to a range of potential problems, most obviously becoming outdated in terms of either technology or design. But theres also the problem that the developer becomes too close to the project and blind to its faults and, especially in this case, its difficulty…
We spoke to Capys Nathan Vella about the problems of deciding exactly how hard to make a video game back in April, when he suggested that, hopefully itll come to rest right at that nice and hard level but not frustratingly pull-out-your-eyeballs hard. Well, it hasnt. In fact, its so difficult that we suggest wearing glasses when you play just to ensure youre not tempted into any impromptu ocular surgery.
But that doesnt mean Below is a complete failure, far from it. In many ways this is a great game and if you have the patience and skill to play it then we can see it becoming a cult favourite. Vella mentioned Demons Souls (giving a hint as to how long ago the game was originally conceived) as a major influence and you can definitely see that in the finished product. Except Below makes the Soulsborne games look like Kirbys Dream Land.
Below is both a survival game and a roguelike, two genres notorious for their difficulty and inscrutability. Below starts, with no explanation whatsoever, in a slow pan down towards a tiny boat as it makes its way to an ominous-looking island in the midst of a terrible thunderstorm. The game never zooms in as far as you expect though and when your character emerges out onto the beach the camera maintains an overhead view that leaves them looking absolutely tiny before the towering clifftops.
The viewpoint alone is going to put many people off, not least because the forced perspective view makes it difficult to parse level layouts as quickly as youd like and makes exits particularly difficult to spot. And thats if you can see anything at all, as once you venture into the interior of the island you discover that not only are the levels covered in all-consuming fog, that only parts as you get very close to it, but that even when you get to areas where thats not a problem the brightness levels are so low its easy to miss important details.
As bad as that sounds the initial hours with Below are actually extremely satisfying. Nothing beyond a few button presses are explained but you quickly realise that bonfires are, yet again, used as a safe spot from which you can craft items and take stock of your situation. You can also use them to fast travel to another bonfire further on, although in a good example of the games attitude towards difficultly, and your precious spare time, it only works the once and costs a not inconsiderable amount of in-game resources.
You start the game with a sword and shield and bow and arrow, and, much like Demons Souls et al., the most sensible tactic is to slowly explore with shield raised and your eye scanning for any sign of movement. Although that wont save you from the traps which can instantly kill you and can only be spotted because youre already familiar with them (i.e. theyve killed you before) or you use a magic lantern to outline their location.
The lantern is your first discovery on the island and you soon realise its key to interacting with the mysterious devices that lay strewn all around, with defeated enemies dropping pellets that power its light. When you die – and we imagine youve already guessed this – you lose all your possessions and the lantern, and so when a new explorer arrives on the island to take up the cause their first act must be to retrieve the lantern. Which is something weve spent anything up to an hour doing, with no guarantee that we wouldnt die just seconds after reclaiming it.
You may be wondering how all these sadistic obstacles could possibly constitute a game that is in any way satisfying. Many, were sure, will already be recoiling in horror at the thought of ever touching the game but if you go into with the right mindset, knowing what to expect, then the sense of accomplishment is enormous.
Theres no getting away from the fact that there are serious balancing problems in Below. The survival aspect seems entirely unnecessary given how difficult the game already is. Not least because dying simply because you havent eaten in a while is a hugely anticlimactic way to go – especially when your hunger runs out so unnaturally quickly anyway. Bleeding out is another problem, as if you werent vulnerable to damage enough, and the tiny inventory you start with is mockingly insufficient for the task ahead.
As you progress you do unlock shortcuts though and you can also store items for the next character to use. But this never solves the problem that even once youve got your lantern back youre then almost certainly going to have to grind for another 10 minutes or so killing lesser enemies in order to get the resources and items together that you need to delve deeper. Its a complete waste of time and serves no purpose except to alienate and frustrate.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Below is that it feels like it would have been perfectly entertaining even if its difficulty was more normal. The different levels you explore are all fascinating and there are some unexpected secrets once you start to get a certain way in. The way it uses randomly-generated levels is also clever, as it mixes them with hand-crafted sections to ensure the game never suffers from the clinical blandness of some procedurally-generated titles.
Below is such a bizarre mix of great and awful its probably the most frustrating game weve ever played. Theres a minor classic here, somewhere, beneath the more baffling design decisions and balancing issues, but only the most patient and dedicated players are going to find it.
The Soulsborne games were always categorised as hard but fair, but Below seems to want to actively punish its players – making them pay the harshest penalty possible for the smallest mistake. If youre prepared to take on the challenge then you will be rewarded, but if youre hoping for a relaxing time off at Christmas this is one game youll want to steer very clear of.
In Short: A frustrating mix of survival game and roguelike, that has absolutely no respect for your time and yet still hides an enthralling and rewarding action adventure within its murky depths.
Pros: Highly atmospheric art design and music, and the combat is the one thing to get the hard but fair balance just right. Some great set pieces and clever use of procedurally-generated content.
Cons: The games difficulty level is badly misjudged, especially in terms of the survival elements and the amount of busywork required. Tiny main character and dark visuals will frustrate many.
Formats: Xbox One (reviewed) and PC
Release Date: 14th December 2018
Age Rating: 12
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