Below Review

Explore at your own risk.

Below is an action-adventure survival game that pits players against an unforgiving, and often brutal, world. As you make your way through its mysterious environments, you’ll find yourself facing all matters of enemies, animals and secrets as you carefully balance your character’s survival needs.

Viewed from a top-down perspective, your antagonist arrives on a beach where they must push forward, exploring the depths below in order to find what’s lurking at the heart of this world. That is until your protagonist dies… and trust me on this, they most certainly will. Once your protagonist is dead, it’s up to the next explorer to collect your previous character’s weapons and items and push forward.

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Leaning on elements of the roguelite genre, death is a central focus of Below. Everything is out to get you; the world, the elements, the traps and the numerous monsters are all there to make your life incredibly difficult. It’s only through perseverance and discovery that you start to earn a sense of confidence, learning how to take down particular enemies or how to spot traps. As you delve further into the island, you’ll even start to find and unlock shortcuts, an addition that helps diminish the punishment for death.

Below is a game that gives nothing away, and I mean absolutely nothing. You are dumped in this world and tasked with figuring everything out on your own. There’s no doubt that this is a bold game design decision, and I think it will likely put some people off, but I do believe it’s the right one for this game. Part of what makes Below so fascinating is the unknown, both in the world itself and in how you perceive and interact with it.

When you aren’t being mauled by traps and monsters, players must effectively manage health, hunger, hydration and heat levels. Learning the game’s survival system is a challenge in itself, as players must also get to grips with the crafting and cooking system. For the time you spend fighting monsters and exploring the depths, you must also hunt and gather food to ensure you have enough stocked to last through the more combat-intense sections.

Food can be cooked using meat, vegetables and water gathered throughout the world, along with medicines and other potions. Other items can be turned into weapons or tools that will aid you on your quest. The balance between ensuring you are adequately equipped and also fed can be a difficult one, but it’s a design decision that fits into the world of Below.

When it does come to fighting monsters, you’ve got a move set that wouldn’t be out of place in a game called Bark Mouls. With blocking and attacking on the triggers, you also have to aim attacks using the right analog stick, can shield bash and dodge around.

The top-down perspective along with beautiful pixel visuals go a long way to mak Below look incredibly unique. There’s an intangible atmosphere throughout the game that’s only enhanced by Jim Guthrie’s haunting synth-laden soundtrack. Below’s presentation is unique, beautiful and genuinely quite scary at times. The sound design and soundtrack are always perfectly balanced, offering just as little or as much as each situation needs.

It’s important that we return to how difficult Below is. Its obtuse nature is a welcome change in an industry that is obsessed with holding the player’s hand. Even from the very start, there are no hints or cues regarding Below’s systems. You must simply play and experiment with them until you are competent enough to start making progress. This slow pace at the start was something I personally enjoyed, but it certainly isn’t for everyone.

The PS4 release also brings with it a new Explore Mode, which opens the world up to those wishing to experience a more relaxing experience. This will also be patched into the Xbox One and PC versions of the game. It essentiallys removes the hunger and thirst bars, as well as introducing a number of balance changes that make Below much more approachable. It gives players a chance to experiment with Below’s systems in a much less demanding environment, learning how the world works without having to pay attention to the survival elements.

The only other noticeable issue I had during my time with Below was the occasional long loading screen, which can be a minor annoyance considering how common death is at the beginning of the game. Also, I’m angry at Capybara for making me kill cute foxes in order to survive. They are tiny and small, and I feel terrible every time I have to kill one.

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Summary
Below is a unique experience that blends some of the most popular gameplay mechanics seen this generation into a hauntingly beautiful and ferocious journey of death, redemption and survival. Even with the new Explore Mode making the game more accessible, Below’s obtuse nature won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but the process of discovering and mastering the game’s numerous systems is a vastly enjoyable one.
Good
  • A deeply engaging world
  • Stunning visuals and sound design
  • Enjoyable combat
  • Explore mode for those turned off by difficult games
Bad
  • Steep learning curve
  • Occasional long loading screen
9