Below starts off with a boat arriving on a distant shore–dying of originality here–and there’s no tutorial text or explanation for anything. You run around, do stuff, press buttons, and try to interpret vague glyphs to figure things out. It feels like it should be a Zelda game–the overhead view, the rudimentary combat, the gadgets–but it’s a lot less combat-focused. It’s almost more of an adventure game in the classical sense, where you wander around trying things until you solve a puzzle or figure out what a symbol stands for, then you blunder on a solution and advance a bit further.

Developer: Capy Games
Price: $24.99
Platforms: Xbox One and PC (reviewed)
MonsterVine was supplied with a PC code for review.

Sometimes, it all clicks and you’re exploring a spooky dungeon or finally solving a frustrating puzzle. Other times, you’re trying to figure out a gimmick. For example, your lantern shines light, as lanterns do. But some monsters–red monsters–drop glowing doohickeys that you can use to upgrade your lantern. Those help reveal new hidden passages or ways deeper into the labyrinth. This is never explained. It just happens if you’re lucky enough to figure it out.

And then you step on a trap and die. Because, oh yeah, it’s also a roguelike, in that you do a lot of dying and through dying, you learn how to play the game and get stronger and figure out the mechanics. This is the “losing is fun” genre. A new adventurer spawns and, hopefully, you can find your way back to your old body which has all your gear on it, a bit wiser as to how the mechanics work.

Below wants to be an atmospheric puzzling game where you just need to figure out how things work while admiring the world…but it also wants to be a roguelike dungeon crawler that kicks you in the genitals and laughs at you for not being hardcore enough…but then there’s that urge to be a hardcore survival game where you can die of hunger and thirst in addition to gimmick traps and whatnot. Because, oh yeah, it’s also a survival crafting game. All the great trends of 2011-2013 combined. Now, if only it was a Kickstarter or on Early Access…

In trying to do everything, it does nothing well, and it doesn’t explain any of it. Instead, most of the game is spent in classic “exploring with my face” fashion, blundering into things or futzing with things that shouldn’t be futzed with because who knows what might happen. Instead of rewarding that kind of playful experimentation and exploration, it just kind of acknowledges it. You upgrade your lantern, learn shortcuts, and upgrade your camp, but it’s more making advancement a smidge less painful than really feeling accomplished. It’s not satisfying to figure out you need to build a fire. It’s just one more bullshit problem solved before another one pops up and kills you.

The hell of it is, I want to like Below. It’s obtuse and indie! It’s beautiful with an interesting soundtrack! It’s weird as hell! But it’s dull as hell and requires grinding not in the traditional RPG sense, but in the actual “grinding” sense, where you wear down the game over time by refusing to stop. If you have the patience for it, I think you’d dig it. There’s a lot of interesting pieces here, but Below never quite manages to bring them all together.

Some of that is due to the advancement in these genres we’ve seen since it started development in 2013. One of the hazards of the game’s design is the clock is almost always running (you can pause if you need a think, but it’s hard to get out of a bad situation even with time to think). There was a time when just having food and drink and crafting and survival mechanics made your game interesting or noteworthy, but now that covers pretty much everything. How many survival/crafting games are on Steam right now? Way too many. Likewise, the hardcore permadeath roguelike may not have been perfected in the 5 years since development started, but if you want that particular flavor, you know where to find it.

The Final Word
It’s not cutting edge. I mean “Souls-like” is a genre of its own now, not just an interesting experiment. So we wind up with Below, which is like one of those weird evolutionary offshoots that is never quite successful.

MonsterVine Rating: 3.5 out of 5 – Fair

Below Review – Below Expectations

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