Review – BELOW
This one has been a long time coming. Originally announced way back in 2013 as an Xbox exclusive there were five years of delays and PR silence. But BELOW was finally released. So how does it live up to expectations?
After a rather lengthy yet atmospheric cut scene of a boat heading towards an island, BELOW drops you straight into the game with no instructions and no direction; one of BELOW‘s best decisions. There’s no hand-holding whatsoever. Everything you do is a result of figuring it out along the way. As I explored, I came across a bonfire, some monoliths, and a lantern which seemed important. After a few more minutes I found the path I was supposed to take and took my first steps into the dungeon below. I moved from room to room encountering a thick fog that blocked most of my vision. It was dark, yet beautiful. There was a sense of mystery and wonder. I wanted to know what was happening. Why am I here? What actually lies below?
BELOW doesn’t really have a story in the traditional sense. Its mystery is what pushes you through it and it’s a mystery worth exploring. As I ventured down further, the levels become more elaborate and I eventually fell to a well hidden trap and was transported back to the beach as a new adventurer. Perma-death is a key mechanic in BELOW. When you die (which will be a lot), your body will remain in the world so you can later reclaim everything you’ve lost. This includes that all important lantern which is vital to progress. Dying doesn’t mean doing the whole game again as well. This is a rogue-lite; doorways and shortcuts that you open as one character remain open for subsequent runs. Shortcuts are frequent enough that it doesn’t feel too harsh when you die but the problem is that travel times can be painfully slow even with these shortcuts. The opening hub just feels too large for how little there is inside it.
It’s worth noting that BELOW is procedurally generated to a degree. Whilst room layouts, enemy placements and loot are generally randomized, there are set rules within the world itself. The structure of the world is set in place, each floor has it’s own biomes and the exits are located in the same place. So while you can’t learn the enemy placement on each run, you’ll always know the general structure of each level. Each floor has multiple routes and connect together nicely. BELOW doesn’t try to do anything bold, but it’s beautiful simplicity doesn’t make it necessary.
The no hand-holding approach is one of BELOW‘s best features. At first it may seem daunting, but after a while everything clicks into place. It’s not an overly complex game but it does expect your attention. Preparation is key. It’s pointless to throw yourself into the dungeons time after time again. You won’t get far. You will often need to gather resources and craft supplies to make it far. Luckily there is a handy zone called “The Pocket” that allows you to store a limited number of items for future characters to use. Bonfires can be used to access this pocket or one of it’s most useful features, create a fast travel point. You can only place it once and you can only use it once so you have to make a decision. Do you use it down in the depths to act as a checkpoint for it to potentially be a waste? Or do you use it up as a safety net for your adventurer to use? It’s a smart mechanic that forces forward thinking.
The combat is pretty basic but it’s more than serviceable. You have a sword and shield which you can attack and block with respectively. Most enemies are easy enough to deal with in one vs one situations but if a swarm backs you up into a corner, it’s essentially game over. Be wary of positioning, luckily they can’t actually knock you off the ledges though I think that would make for a really interesting hard mode. You can also perform a quick dash to dodge out of the way of attacks or quickly circle around enemies to try and get a quick hit in.
Though there are some big issues with BELOW the largest is it’s survival mechanics. The hunger mechanic feels completely out of place. It’s a brutal and outdated design decision that goes against the strengths of the rest of the game and can really damage the fun you are having with it. If it was toned down or removed the game would be so much better. Players could be able to explore at their own pace without worrying about a timer ticking down. There are other survival meters such as temperature, which was actually a well thought out addition for the tundra levels and then you’ve got thirst which wasn’t really an issue since The Pocket always has water for you. Collecting resources and cooking meals for your next run is a major part of the core gameplay loop, when you aren’t making progress you will be spending a long time just collecting. It’s here where BELOW feels less like a great game and more like a chore to play; running the same paths constantly just to pick up items isn’t fun. There’s also a few other things like a counter intuitive menu system and lack of enemy variety especially in the first ten levels.
The further that you progress down the levels the more challenging things become. Resources start to dry out, new mechanics are introduced and enemies get tougher. Level fourteen to eighteen in particular brought in an entirely new enemy that completely changed how I played the game, you can’t kill it and it attacks you from any angle. I was inching forward with my shield up, looking in every direction hoping to block or dodge the attack. It’s a grueling gauntlet that leaves little room for error. Whilst this was exciting to play, it was also the most annoying part of the game thanks to the unbelievably harsh survival mechanics.
BELOW is at it’s absolute best when you’re progressing and discovering the dark secrets of this island. Every few levels you see something completely different and there was a lot I just wasn’t expecting. Even when the game stumbles, I couldn’t bring myself to dislike it. The mystery is just too compelling and the pay-off is well worth it.
The visual design of BELOW is incredible, the minimalist art style is both awe inspiring and atmospheric. Even the simplest views were stunning here, causing me to take dozens of screenshot. The camera is zoomed far out to give a sense of how large the world is and how small you are in comparison, thankfully in combat it does zoom in nicely. Sound design is also stellar, amplifying the atmosphere that was set in the visuals to a whole other level. The soundtrack also helps with exploration, audio queues may give you hints that some secrets are nearby and when you are searching for the lantern, the audio will ramp up the closer you get.
Was BELOW worth the long wait? It’s complicated, but in many ways, yes. Beyond the lackluster survival mechanics and tedious grinding, there is a strong central mystery that kept bringing me back.
Mesmerizing minimalistic art style
Exploring the world of BELOW is great and the combat is passable
Atmospheric music that blends into the world.
Fun Factor: 6.5
Tedious survival meters bring down something special.
Final Verdict: 8.0
Below is available now on Xbox One, PC.