Last year at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, I saw Below at an Xbox event and wasn't sure what to think. Well, that's not entirely true. I did know what to think, and it went something like this: "Boy, this is a pretty game. But holy heck does this look hard. Hey, is that Ryse?"
My past self was kind of an idiot.
Fortunately, I've learned my ways. This weekend at PAX East, I finally gave Below the attention it deserves and came away impressed with what the team at Capy (Sword & Sworcery, Super Time Force) has been up to. Below is a dark and atmospheric take on the roguelike genre, a game that draws inspiration from Dark Souls and Spelunky, with a bit of Zelda thrown in for good measure. You explore a mysterious world without the guidance of any text or tutorials, descending deeper and deeper through a series of underground environments for no reason other than the allure of finding out what--here it comes--lies below.
Below is hard. It's brutal and unforgiving, a game where a seemingly minor attack from one of the earliest enemies can cause you to bleed out and die if the wound is left unattended. The darkness is just as deadly, urging you to proceed through each new level at a methodical pace, shield and sword firmly at the ready. And on top of all that, Below goes out of its way to drive home your insignificance by portraying you as a tiny figure in a vast chasm of shadows. This is not a game that inspires an immediate sense of confidence.
No, confidence comes later--and that's what makes Below so enticing. As you slowly move through one randomly generated level to the next, you'll become better and better at staying alive: learning how to spot booby traps, how to anticipate the movements of crafty enemies, and how those strange ingredients you scavenge along the way can be crafted into helpful items. But all of that comes after dying. Lots and lots of dying.
And you know what? I'm not afraid of that anymore. Within the past year, I finally got over my fear of brutal games and played both Spelunky and Dark Souls. While I'm still working my way through Dark Souls, I'm in love with the way its beautiful world--a place full of secrets and rewards--pushes you onward in spite of the ever-present specter of death.
Spelunky, on the other hand, I've pretty much played inside and out a million times over. I remember texting fellow GameSpotter Chris Watters as I tried to pull off the infamous key run, a feat that requires you to lug a golden key across the bulk of the game in order to unlock a shortcut to the game's fourth world. My texts to Chris (my Spelunky mentor) were both vulgar and exclusively composed in capital letters, and every single one of them was unfit for publishing here on GameSpot. But over the subsequent weeks, I dedicated myself to learning Spelunky's well-hidden secrets, finally managing to beat not only the game's primary boss, but also the hidden boss that, according to PSN trophy data, only 2 percent of players have managed to do.
So, suffice it to say, I was able to look at Below with fresh eyes this time around. And even though I died over and over within the 30 or so minutes I spent with the game at PAX East, I could tell that this game already had its hooks in me. And while a lot of that has to do with the way Below follows in the footsteps of similar games, much of it has to do with its own innovations.
For one, Below's aesthetic is striking and distinct. The environments you visit are harsh and awash in darkness, but there's also an abstract, ethereal beauty to them. These are ominous 2D landscapes, but ones designed with a gorgeous, painterly quality. On top of that, Capy has once again teamed up with Jim Guthrie, the indie rock musician who provided the wonderfully ambient soundtrack for Sword & Sworcery. While there are shades of Sworcery in Below's music, it feels more subdued and fitting with the eerie darkness.
Those aesthetic details are evident right from the outset. What's less evident is how well the game's top-down, Zelda-inspired swordplay holds up over the long haul. Given how tiny your character appears onscreen, I'm curious how the item progression will work--can you feel a substantial difference between different pieces of equipment when the camera is so far removed? Can you really savor the moment you pick up something shiny and new when you're little more than a speck on the screen? I'm sure Capy's got some clever ideas in the works, but I'm curious nonetheless.
At any rate, Below was probably my favorite experience at PAX East. Having finally gotten over my fear of brutal games, I was able to go into this demo with open eyes and was rewarded immensely for it. Am I just getting my hopes up? It's possible. We'll find out for sure when Below launches on the PC and Xbox One sometime this year.See more coverage of PAX East 2014