I figured there should be a topic for the long-awaited new game from Capybara, Below.
For the uninitiated, Below was first shown at E3 2013 to a tremendous amount of positive buzz. After years of answering “When is Below coming out?” Capy decided to go radio silent until last week when, with little fanfare, they announced it was coming out in mere days and would be part of Xbox Game Pass. The game itself is an isometric, rogue-like dungeon crawler that I think I could best sum up as Hyperlight Drifter meets Don’t Starve.
I’ll save my more detailed impressions for a comment, but let me just say that initial impressions are not good. The game teaches you next to nothing, not even the sort of directed-without-words tutorial so common in Souls-inspired indie games. It just feels inscrutable for the sake of inscrutability. If I was the kind of person who liked to project myself into the mindset of a developer, which I’m not, I would describe Below as “pretentious.”
I’m also kind of surprised by the lack of chatter since it came out. Combine that with the rather unceremonious release, and it makes me wonder if I’m not the only one who has been disappointed by it.
I have no doubt there will be people for whom the puzzle of decoding Below’s various systems and goals will be tremendously fulfilling. I am just not one of them.
I am enjoying Below a lot! Here are my scattered thoughts:
The soundtrack is incredible. Gloomy, portentous, swelling, seemingly procedural synths that mutate and glitter depending on where you are. The acoustic guitar at the bonfires is a sweet touch. The soundtrack elevates the solitude of the game, which, without it, may actually be a bit boring in parts.
The intro is unbelievably foreboding.
The game’s intentional obfuscation intends to teach the player through experimentation, but this ethos absolutely does not need to apply to the inventory menu. You can ‘kindle’ a bonfire to turn it into a one-time-use warp point should you die, and you can warp to that warp point, both of which are indicated by icons, without text. I used both accidentally the first time, which is a huge error when the warp point is two levels ABOVE where you now are. There’s no reason that I shouldn’t know what the icons mean in my own inventory.
I also didn’t understand how crafting worked until I just went through with it and made something. Sounds fine in theory, but the problem is that the icon that shows what I will be making has no text - not until I actually make it, anyway. So you can look at the icon and guess at what it will be, but the icons favor aesthetic over communication, so you likely won’t have any idea until you make it and then go select it. That’s bad design, plain and simple.
Speaking to the obfuscation, I like it within the game world. There aren’t a huge variety of systems with which to experiment, and the experimentation is largely mechanical, so it’s not intensely demanding. Experimenting with pointing your lantern, revealing specific colors, crafting elemental items to perform specific tasks, it’s fun and rewarding for me, but I will say that the scale makes it difficult to discern what you’re looking at sometimes. The camera is pulled WAY out, and your character is very small, so icons and, say, things to shoot with your arrow are sometimes very hard to see.
I also like the difference between fire light and lamp light. Fire light is bright, but lamp light reveals traps and illuminates ancient tech. Both deplete resources. If you don’t have your lamp, you can drop the things that power it, which act like glowy markers and whose light also reveals traps and illuminates the tech. It’s a cool twist on resource management: you will definitely not have your lamp, but you may also not have fire sometimes. Whatever the case, there will always be SOME way to light your path. I’ve enjoyed grappling with this mechanic.
I like the running around. Your character is delightfully fast, and combat feels pretty good. It’s not exceptionally deep, but it’s solid. I also love that you can’t fall off ledges, because I am certain I would fall off every single fucking ledge otherwise.
I am overwhelmed with items, but the only resources that truly seem worth hunting out are food, water, and sticks. You’re otherwise seemingly constantly inundated with a steady stream of everything else. I had crafted like 9 bandages by the time I last died, on the fourth level.
I eventually made sense of the map, which is actually super easy to read when you figure out what it’s telling you. The only thing I don’t like is the icons on it that indicate where your body is, and where your lamp is. I mean I at least only think this is what they are. They are really just colored dots. More unnecessary obfuscation.
All that said, I’m excited to get back into the game soon. I am figuring out what I need to understand through playing the game, so in that way, it’s working, but I do feel like I wasted resources/time because some things weren’t communicated that should have just been flatly communicated to me. I love this particular flavor of ‘ancient ruins/mysterious power’, and the game feels good to play, so despite my obvious misgivings, I’m not sure when I’ll stop banging my head against this beautiful thing.
I know I’m double-posting but I think the weirdest part about Below is how there are virtually zero reviews for this game. Press around it feels extremely muted.
And, as a weird twist that does nothing but make the issue more confusing, the “trailer” on the Metacritic page is clearly an edited, official trailer from a long time ago, but it’s literally just a dashboard capture of some early version of the game, that, in the middle of the trailer, jumps out to the Xbox One dashboard and then opens fucking Super Time Force using a Kinect voice command what the FUCK
Wow, that is… something. I even tried to see if there were any rushed YouTube reviews and I found maybe two or three, none from a significant outlet. It could be that the major sites are already winding down for the holidays and don’t have the staff on hand, but for a game that’s been highly anticipated for half a decade, I would think they would find somebody to cover it.
I can definitely come up with reasons in my head why Capy would have such a seemingly rushed, unceremonious launch; they expect the game to have a long tail, they wanted it on Game Pass before Christmas, they wanted to avoid the already-packed early 2019 schedule, etc. But it just seems like someone lacked confidence in this game.
Which is odd, because as much as I dislike it - and I really dislike it - I can still appreciate that the game has a very specific artistic vision and seems successful at reaching it. I have no doubt that there’s going to be a fanbase for Below that picks it to pieces and savors every new discovery.
Halfway through the opening cutscene I started fiddling with the picture settings on my TV because I thought I must be missing something.
yeah i jiggled the joystick several times, wondering if it locked up or something. in retrospect, the opening is cool, but experiencing it, I was just confused. a little warning or some kind of…anything to indicate something was happening would have been nice!!
also lol at us being the only two people on the forum today who played this game i guess. there were a few people in the discord the day after release who played a good chunk and were positive on it. it really just feels like this game is gonna garner no meaningful attention, though, which is both surprising and a shame.
I do think the joke thread title is a bit too subtle, fwiw.
I’m not normally one for survival games or rogue likes, but I’ve been enjoying Below so far despite it’s difficulty. Even though I’ve died a few times already and felt like I lost a bunch of progress, I’ve steadily been descending into the depths of the island and unlocking shortcuts along the way. I think without the aesthetic, sense of discovery, and music, the constantly ticking down of numerous systems would have got me to stop playing already. I have about 6 hours so far and I’m down on the ninth level. I’m hoping to unlock another shortcut before I die of hunger or before one of the enemies kills me.
I really wonder if Capybara games screwed themselves majorly by releasing this game so close to the end of the year. PC Gamer and Windows Central are the only major outlets that seem to have released reviews. Even games like Ashen had a little bit of time for press coverage, but to release one of the most anticipated indies on a five-year wait like this seems really risky. It really bums me out, but I don’t know how well its been doing in sales. There was an article on Newsweek that makes me kind of worried… they seemed to have put a lot of heart and soul into this game, and I worry it may not pay off for them.
I’ve been hyped for the game for years, but I was kind of worried about it being a Roguelite. I frequently love that genre and Roguelikes, but I’ve also seen it ruin games with incredible assets. But it does seem like the procedural generation and permadeath are part of the fundamental structure of the game.
So I… I wonder if this game would have faired better as Early Access? The game has been in development for five whole years, and the Roguelite and survival genres have experienced a lot of changes and improvements.
What I’m reading here makes me think that it has a bit of a Rain World thing: a game that has a extremely attractive aesthetic, but turns out to beextremely difficult and inscrutable in a way that results in a lot of players being pushed a way, and then there are a few players who connect deeply with those mechanics. The result is… kind of an underwhelming critical response and disappointing sales. Kris Piotrowski actually says as much in that Newsweek article:
“It’s very important for there to be some people who make something very specific. And maybe you’re not going to like this. But somebody else will fucking love it,” he says.
So, a more blunt question: …do y’all think Below is worth picking up? There’s not a lot of coverage for me to gauge my expectations on, so I’m curious how people are responding to it. It seems like a game I personally might connect with. Beyond just personal tastes, do you think it’s worth a look?
As much as I’m liking the Winter of Arcade, these games are coming in hot. I’ve had stability issues with both Mutant Year Zero and Ashen, so I can’t say that I’m surprised that Below is crashing on the regular.
I can’t remember off the top of my head who made it, but I saw a review/video essay of Hob that talked about how technical problems like that are death to exploration/discovery games, because they introduce an external element of doubt in the player. You can’t help but start turning “Am I missing something?” into “Is this a glitch?” I’ll see if I can dig it up if anyone’s interested.
I probably wouldn’t have tried it if it weren’t on Game Pass, at least not until I could pick it up on sale. (Quick aside: between Mutant Year Zero, Ashen and now Below, what a great couple weeks it’s been to have Game Pass.) That said, I wouldn’t discourage someone who likes these types of games from trying it out, although if what @kcin is reporting turns out to be widespread it might be worth waiting for a patch or three.
I spent more time than I’m willing to admit debating with myself whether I should just make the thread title more generic.
I only played about 30 minutes or so. Hadn’t died yet, but then the game crashed, and I went back to Ashen. Now that I’ve finished Ashen, I’ll give it another look. I loved the atmosphere from the start, but I never have enjoyed survival mechanics for the most part, so I’m not convinced Below is for me.
I’ve sunk probably 10-15 hours into BELOW thus far and while I am enjoying it immensely, the frustrations in this thread all feel very valid. It is not a game that can be recommended lightly - you really have to be a glutton for punishment.
The one criticism I don’t fully agree with is @kcin’s assertion that things being inscrutable is bad design. Your mileage may vary, but I super disagree - because everything in BELOW feels designed on purpose, toward a singular goal.
There’s an Errant Signal video where he posits that Dark Souls is all about learning - things that seem unfair at first, like monsters jumping at you from around a blind corner, are there to teach you about how dangerous the world is and be something that you will remember the next time through.
In many ways, BELOW feels similar to this - but more than learning, I think it’s a game about memory and time, both personal and collective, past and future. Each of your adventurers is a new person, coming to the island to die there, like their forebearers. You somehow have their knowledge - what they learned, where they died - but not because the game writes it down for you. You know because they (you) shared it, and you remember.
I could go on. But this game is special, I think. It is a roguelike that forces you to think beyond your current run, that reminds you of your smallness and impotence, unless you plan and provide for future generations. It makes me want to flip tables. But I have to keep digging.
(and if you want a real challenge, try playing vegan. it’s…it’s so hard. it is testing me)
I won’t speak for anyone else, of course, but where inscrutability becomes a problem for me in Below compared to something like Dark Souls is when I, as the player, feel like I don’t know something that the in-game character should know.
It makes sense to me that the character in a Souls game can be just as befuddled about items as I am. It doesn’t make sense to me that the character in Below doesn’t know how to make a torch until I discover it.
A fair point! Certain basic things like that, yes, it would make sense for the character to know already. But then the question becomes, at what point do you stop explaining?
I think BELOW is deeply interested in promoting exploration and experimentation, and it does that with those ground level choices. From the jump, it says, “you know nothing about this world, so go learn through trial and error”. I’d also use this to defend the opening cutscene, as well - it is long, and inscrutable, and (imo) extremely powerful as a result. It never gives you anything for free.
(plus, i mean, i could theoretically swing a sword and pilot a boat and have no idea how to make a torch. like personally i’d take a stick and…idk, some oil? and a cloth? and tie it somehow? but that’s something i’d have to find out on my own, given the materials i had available, much like the character)
You misunderstood me. I like Below’s obfuscation and mystery, and believe that, in worldbuilding, it’s not only valid, but one of my preferred methods of storytelling. I’m a sucker for it.
My only real critique of Below’s communication decisions is in the menus. I should be able to understand my own inventory - it’s literally my inventory, I didn’t find it. It’s my brain, my body, my pockets. I should know what the icons at the bonfire menu mean. They aren’t runes on some ancient interface I’ve stumbled onto in the caverns below; they are things I am deciding do to in front of this fire.
Blowing 25 lights to kindle this bonfire because I didn’t know what the hell it was going to do is…okay, fine, that’s a learning experience, though I still think it’s one of the weakest. But blowing several floors to warp back because I, again, had no idea what this icon meant - there’s a point where my character is engaging with a mechanic that they appear to understand more than I do that it goes from worldbuilding to inconsistency. I, too, should know what will happen.
If the output of my crafting gives me a legible icon, there’s no reason that I shouldn’t also know the name of the item I’m crafting. If their design decision was, “we will let players craft, but they won’t know what they are making until they make it,” then I should not see an icon. I should see a fat question mark. But, this isn’t what they intended. They give me half of the info - the icon - because they want me to know what I’m making. The problem is that the icons are not legible enough to know what it is I’m making. The icons for arrows, cooked foods, even bandages have denotations on them that I simply can’t discern because they are too small. I NEED the title of the item to know what it is. It’s a half-step between communicating and not, and is, in my eyes, bad design.
To a lesser extent, I feel the same way about the map, but I understand why it is the way it is: the map is of the same source as the lamp, and everything else on this island. It’s not mine, it’s not me, I don’t know it. My critique, then, is for the forebearers: your map is too vague.
Thank you for the clarification - now that you’ve brought it up, there are a lot of things that actually seem like weird half-measures, when it comes to getting information across. You’re right, the icons on the crafting is weird, that’s a great point.
I feel like this is a seam, a crack in the design - they are giving you the bare minimum information, even when it would make sense for you to have more or less. It very much feels “designed” - they give you the icon to add a sense of mystery and risk/reward, but then learning the name of the thing after you make it is weird. It’s like they decided that was as little as they could give you without people getting overwhelmingly frustrated. Theoretically, if they wanted to take your suggestion and make it a big ol’ question mark, why not go further? Why not make it so you can put any 3 items together and sometimes you just get nothing? The reason why is that would 100% suck, so they give the recipes.
But then again (and this leads me to an open question for you and others), parts of this game clearly don’t care whether you think it’s fun. On that note: does ANYBODY like the hunger mechanic? It is interesting but, imo, waaaay too fast, and I don’t understand the logic behind that choice.
I’m overall fine with it, though I find that the preparation can be taxing when you’ve got a shortcut to a deeper level in which there is no food or water, so before you begin, you’ve got to hit a different level to grab that stuff, and it all amounts to time spent.
Where each of us stands on spending time in a game will differ, and I can’t argue with people who feel like that time is time wasted. Personally, I’m okay with it, and I feel like it fits the rest of the game: you’re in a place where you don’t belong, and you’re going deeper than you are naturally able to, so you should expect to struggle, and you should need to prepare for your journey. And plus, I think I just found a recipe for a soup that locks your meters in place when consumed, so I’ll give the game credit for creating countermeasures beyond simple meter management. (I think the recipe is water + meat + meat + blue mushroom from the ice level)
The hunger and thirst don’t feel super important, just fine and consistent. The light management, however, feels necessary and completely fleshed-out. I love it.
Also, dang, that soup sounds great. As a personal rule though, I play games vegan (since I am) so I won’t be able to make it lmao.
Colin Campbell’s review over at Polygon really gets at this stuff well, how it is infuriating and makes you want to walk away forever, but then there’s some pull back, some siren’s song of inscrutability. I have a feeling I will spend many more frustrating hours with this wonderful, mean game.