The Wanderer arrives on the shores of the island with naught to their name but a sword, a shield and a lantern with very little fuel. As you look down from above, they are just a tiny speck on the screen, a small character dwarfed by the scenery around it, from the scale of the beach to the rather long climb up the cliff face. Heading inland is really the only option, and exploring the surface and the Depths – the island’s underground – is inevitable.
This is Capybara Games’ take on the dungeon crawler, for you to explore under the surface and unravel some of the mysteries of the island. It’s a task for which the Wanderer is ill equipped to start off with, and this is not a game that will hold your hand as you play.
In fact, that push to make the player explore can be seen in every facet of the game. Very little, if anything, is explicitly stated within the game, leaving it up to you to figure things out as you go along. Even learning how to play and how the game works is largely left up to the player, but heading below the surface will see you entering a world full of the unknown, as the Depths are randomly generated every time a new Wanderer appears on the beach.
There’s no overt and obvious aim to your exploration, to start off with, beyond just finding your way to an exit from the area you are in, but as you find stairs that let you descend deeper under the surface, the enemies will become trickier to deal with and the perils more imminent to your survival. Not everything underground will want to kill you, so if you ignore or don’t bother some dog-like creatures, for example, they won’t attack you either, though killing them does reward you with meat and bones. There’s also the bats that will flock to your light and make a beautifully fluttering and shadowy nuisance of themselves, but will deal you no damage.
The combat looks quite short and snappy, using the shield to block incoming attacks before swiping and lunging at the enemies to vanquish them, where you’ll then want to scoop up the gems they drop as quickly as possible, just in case they try to respawn. These are augmented by being able to find spears, bows and arrows, hammers and so forth, but you can only have one secondary weapon at a time, so there’s a difficult decision to be made on whether you take your new discovery or leave it behind.
The trouble is that even taking the slightest amount of damage can spell your doom. Each blow that you take will start you bleeding, and especially if you’ve managed to get quite far into the island, will start a rush to prevent a slow and painful death. As Nathan Vella, Capy Co-Founder and President, demonstrated the game for us, he’d be quick to guzzle down any mushrooms, herbs or potions that he had no real idea the properties of, but that he’d been able to acquire during that life, in the vain hope that they might save him. The only other option being to find a campfire, heat a sword and cauterise the wound, Rambo-style – something I muttered even before Nathan called it Rambo-ing.
The reason for the panic is that death is permanent. Once your Wanderer dies, they are dead forever and this, combined with the random dungeons, brings the game under that resurgent roguelike or roguelike-like genre heading. However, your life has not been in vain and as a new and unique Wanderer appears on the shores, you may be able to find the corpses of the previously deceased and claim their equipment.
With a freshly randomised dungeon to crawl through, there’s a fascinating system that works behind the scenes to make this happen. Essentially, if you can remember the level that you died on and try to head to the equivalent area, you should find the recently deceased, a little like in ZombiU. It will be made easier by a quick travel system that you can discover, but is certainly complicated by the fact that the level’s layout might be different, in which case that body is shifted around a little, but should be somewhere nearby.
However, within all of this random generation, there will be certain hardpoints and touchstones for you to find each time. The surface and beach is always going to be the same, while heading in certain directions and routes will see you find all manner of areas that are similarly set in stone. They could lead you to a beach on another side of the world, or it could be a more clearly constructed, possibly man-made room right in the heart of the island, which can yield game-wide changes and repercussions upon their discovery.
With some brilliantly clever ideas and twists, Below is looking fantastic. It has this rather unique style and atmosphere to it, with the tiny figure dwarfed by its surroundings, but then Capy have brought some fresh ideas to the table and created a world that I want to dive in and investigate and explore, even as it shifts from one life to the next.