The deeper I burrow into Below, the deeper it burrows into my mind.
Below is a game of exploration, repetition, tenacity, and bravery. It exists at a crossroads of engrossing and off-putting; it’s enticing with its mysteries but can just as easily become so frustrating that it demands breaks. What makes Below special, though, is that it’s inescapable even during those breaks.
Amid the big blockbusters of 2018 like Red Dead Redemption 2, Spider-Man, and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, there sits Below. It feels so small, which I guess it is in a horizontal sense, but its depth — its literal depth — is unmatched.
The deeper you get, the more surprises there are
Below is a roguelike game that tasks you with reaching the bottom of a dungeon, and delving deeper and deeper only makes the bottom that much more intriguing. There are secrets to discover, new areas to uncover, and shortcuts to unlock along the way, all with the purpose of making progression a little bit easier.
Below is a challenge, sometimes dishearteningly so, but that just makes the progress that much more satisfying.
Relish in mystery
Below begins with a long introduction. Not a tutorial or a cinematic that gives any sort of context to the game, but a wide angle shot on the ocean as clouds rain down on undulating waves. Slowly, a little ripple is revealed in the middle of the water, and over the course of several unflinching minutes as a melancholic song plucks along, the camera zooms in on a boat, which then lands on a rainy beach.
Your character gets out of the boat after what feels like 10 minutes of sea travel and then you’re free to explore. There’s no explanation of how to play. There’s no indication of where to go or what to do.
It’s reminiscent of the original Legend of Zelda, except there’s no old man that gives you a sword. No, you’re all on your own, and if you can’t figure out what to do, you’re shit out of luck.
On the rainy, nameless island of Below, there are two things you need to do to start the game: Grab the lantern in the middle of the island, and head into the cave on the east side of the island. From there, your objective is to go as deep as you can.
The deeper you get, the more surprises there are, and there really is no indication as to why you’re doing all of this or why any of these subterranean structures exist. The mystery of the whole thing has a certain draw to it, and the constant surprises and discoveries makes exploration so appealing.
The dungeon of Below starts easy enough with pretty weak enemies, but on the second floor the danger immediately ramps up with spike traps that kill you in one hit. When you die, you die for good, and a new character lands on the island with a new boat to try where the previous character failed.
The lower you get, the creepier and darker everything becomes
Below is a roguelike game, which means you lose everything when you die, and in order to get your stuff back (including the very necessary lantern) you need to retrace your steps and find your old body. The individual rooms change a bit, although the general layout of the dungeon remains the same.
The frustration of dying wanes a bit when you discover shortcuts that lead back to the surface every few floors, which makes it much easier to hop around to different areas of the dungeon. But making it lower and lower requires better combat mastery and a whole bunch of items you’ll find and craft along the way.
New enemies pop up, new environments reveal themselves, and new items add to the complexity of the game and allow you to access certain areas or have a better chance at surviving the more difficult lower levels.
The lower you get, the creepier and darker everything becomes. Enemies go from cute little monsters to horrifying creatures and ghouls, and the environments match this evolution.
Beauty of Below
The aesthetic of Below, from its simplistic UI to its beautifully dark visuals to its stark and moody soundtrack by Jim Guthrie, is enrapturing.
One of the key elements of Below is light, or rather, lack of light. There is little light in the dungeons, making it incredibly claustrophobic, so it’s up to the player to supply light lest they walk into a trap or are killed by enemies in the dark.
Torches, the lamp, and other light sources act as comforting little beacons in the frighteningly dark world of Below. There are some rooms where light leaks in for one reason or another, and they are a welcome relief.
But the beauty isn’t just in the looks and sound of Below. It’s also in its discoveries. I made it to floor 10 after a few hours and then decided to do a little extra exploring on the previous floors before I tried pressing on. I found out that I missed a shortcut on the first floor and found a weapon that would’ve been very helpful right from the start. It was exciting to find.
The fact that there’s no real map, no signs to point you in the right direction, and no book of recipes for important items to craft makes Below feel very personal. That feeling can also make dying feel very devastating, especially at lower floors, which can inspire a decent amount of ragequitting.
But those mysteries and little discoveries keep pulling you back in.