Below, or How I Learned to Stop Being a Baby and Love Punishing Games

Into the darkness.

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.

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110 comments
RobDev
RobDev

there are levels of punishing. Grinding, overly hard bosses, cheap deaths are not fun in my opinion. 

worksap
worksap

I didn't care for Dark Souls, spending 20 hours doing nothing but killing the same small batch of enemies over and over only to die again and have to do that same area again was boring. It was hard to the point there was no point to trying to play it.

If others like it great I hope you enjoy it, but I didn't.

themc_7
themc_7

I know I've been babied along playing campaigns like Halo, Battlefield, etc. Where even on the hardest difficulty, it's pretty easy. Now when I play a game that is truly difficult, and unforgiving, I hate it. I like to play a game and have fun, not be brutally punished over and over again.

Jasper_73
Jasper_73

Reading some of these comments cracks me up. "Oh i dont like hard games, games should be fun" or "I like hard games, games should challenge you", Its like they take it as a personal insult if they dont like a particular game. I think its great that some developers are making more niche games. Thats how it should be .There is room for all sorts of tastes to be catered for. Unfortunately in recent years my tastes havent really been catered for as most publishers want to make as much money as possible, so they appeal to the lowest common denominator. I look forward to a time when developers make games because they have an idea for a game, a game that has set parameters that arent necessarily going to appeal to everyone, but they make it anyway. Why because some people like that kind of thing. :-)

aliusumbra
aliusumbra

I skip "hardcore" games because I have a life, and ain't nobody got time fo' dat.

VMaven
VMaven

UGHhhh...

In the beginning... there was light and darkness, wait... too far back.

Early in gaming, games were difficult because they were in a machine that required you to put a quarter in. Problem was is that highly skill built  games could let someone play for a really long time, like pinball and a few video games. So the answer was to make the game incredibly cheezy and cheat either to get the person to put in another quarter or move on, and let someone else get taken in.

When video games came to home systems there was a bit of a change up. No great call to need quarters, but they still had a major issue, memory. Games had to be small, challenging and still offer, a way to move forward, through mastering perfect timing through very repetitive action.

I skipped a lot of this because I owned a Commodore 64 and was playing Zork, Archon, Boulder Dash, etc.
I am a long time gamer, and I never really was fond of most of these types of games. Occasionally though I fire up MAME and play some old classics.

When I want to play something hard I play Killing Floor, or L4D1 or 2. I enjoy the group dynamics and if you want a difficult experience try KF on Hell on Earth, or L4D on hard with realism setting on.

Plenty of games can be made more difficult, IF people want that, just slide the scale to hard.

Most of the time I don't want to have to retrain my brain to become an expert in said game, I want to use what I have to enjoy and hone the skills I already possess.

Games that artificially make things hard are stupid. Replaying something over and over again getting nowhere isn't making me enjoy your game more. Games that intelligently make things more difficult can be really fun.


Games are a time sink and balancing things out, between life and relationships are going to determine what is better for you. It's not just about what you think you prefer. Your wife telling you, this or that needs to be done now, is going to make a difference just like jobs, kids, school, money. It's hard to enjoy a hard game if you just don't have the time to put into it, it's going to make Angry Birds look appealing if you only have a few minutes to play something.

Poodger
Poodger

I love that hard games are making a comeback. Too many snore fests out there right now. It has been a long time since a rewarding game has been released. I hate having my hand held through a game, and I hate not having to think or hone my reflexes to win. Games that you can breeze through between 5-15 hours without dying or having to adapt and learn are just.... sigh, so boring.

MooncalfReviews
MooncalfReviews

It's hilarious to me how nerds are all 'be a man' when it comes to hard games. Who gives a crap? Honestly! It's a game. The point is to have fun. If you're into being the best at a thing with a life of like 2 months (until the next game comes out) then great. But there are some people who play games to relax, enjoy ourselves, or switch off; not because we want to challenge our reflexes. Stop feeling so smug just because you've completed some really hard games. It's not even a minor life achievement.

grove12345
grove12345

Its sad that this generation is shocked and surprised when a game is not easy and doesnt hold our hand every moment of the game offering us constant waypoints and respawns. 

VicariousViking
VicariousViking

Looks mostly awesome. I think it could use a bit more vibrancy in regards to the color, but that's just personal taste.


I do think it could be less difficult...or have a difficulty option...as many games should.


Most of my favorite games these days have unique and solid game play. And usually really cool art styles. A lot of the indies of the past several years are just awesome...but unfortunately, it seems people can't make an indie game with a compelling visual style, a cool theme and good game play without also making it a hardcore masochistic death grind...


It kind of sucks. TBOI is great. Teleglitch. FTL. Hyper Light Drifter is going to be awesome probably. This looks great. But they're all "Look how hard my game is!" "Look how much you die!" It's kind of ridiculous. I can beat them all (except Teleglitch lol) but sometimes I just get frustrated with the simplest things. Like let me save and load as I please or ease up just a touch man games are meant to be FUN not a learn for a mistake every 2 seconds thing or an oops you made a mistake or 2 now it's back to the beginning thing... Sometimes I want a punishing, perma-death, against all odds challenge... sometimes I just want to enjoy the game play of a fun cool game I like without worrying about restarting every time I make a less than robotic precise calculation of how I should handle this exact moment in the game.


Bastion is a good example of an "indie" game that just wanted to be fun and not too challenging. Only issue there is it didn't have any aspect of procedural generation so it wasn't that replayable.


Anyway, those are my thoughts. I'm sure i'll still get this and swear at my monitor at least a few times.

Gooeykat
Gooeykat

I don't always enjoy having my ass kicked, but when I do...I play Dark Souls.  Point is, we need games like DS, it scratches the itch we all get sometimes for a real challenge.

DarthLod
DarthLod

"stop being a baby" and with that mentality you'll be one of the rude elitist who think anyone who doesn't play hard games is a cause for insult and trolling. By calling it "being a baby" you are insulting people right there. Its a GAME, not a ego testosterone contest. Get over yourself man. Seriously. I am sick of people like you and with these "hardcore" attitudes. Some people play games for FUN. To set back, relax, and escape....not worry about being "better" than some other guy or boosting your childish ego.

veemonro
veemonro

The way new games should be is like THIEF. 
Before you start you get a checkbox where you can costumise your gaming experience. Stuff like

-no saves and checkpoints outside of level start

-You can't kill any enemy , you have to sneek your way through the level

-You can't use any of the OP weapons


etc.


Or biowares 1990 mode where if you die and you dont have coins its game over.


This way some one who likes games for the chalenge, can costumise the dificulty and people who dont can play them for the story. Its genious and i dont see why its not implemented in every game

translucent17
translucent17

I don't think the character is small enough.

thermalmotion
thermalmotion

So glad this game is coming to Steam now. I'm a sucker for atmospheric visuals.

DiamondDM13
DiamondDM13

Can we please stop with the whole punishing and hard games thing? For f*cks sake, yes, the Souls series is hard as hell, that is true, but I'm completely sure that the difficulty is not all that everyone love about them. I don't care how difficult the games are, it's the sense of discovery, exploration, dread and so on that make them so good. How there's pieces of lore hidden all over the place for you to find if you want to. How it has the single best use of multiplayer out there. How it feels like From Software pick up Diablo as it was, and turned it into a 3D action camera game, and made the whole experience way more intense than it was just by that simple fact.

Now, who wants to face my Dual Katana Pyromancer!?

faizanhd
faizanhd

More Hyper Light Drifter pleassssseeeee ..........................

DAOWAce
DAOWAce

'Hard but fair' is the real way to make challenging games, not arbitrarily upping enemies' health and damage and doing other gamey things to increase difficulty.

Dark Souls is one of my favorite games of all time. I loved it when I started, and I still love it 400 hours later.

Ailurusf
Ailurusf

Sounds and looks awesome! Really looking forward to this :)

Sajius
Sajius

Cool. Now play EVE Online.

spacecadet25
spacecadet25

Remember that those super-hard games of the past were often motivated by two key things:  to cover up the short 3 hour game lengths, and many were arcade port, and arcades want to turn customers quickly, either getting more coins from a different customer or getting the current customer to keep dying so they had to keep paying to play.

This new hardcore-only games trend hurts other gamers that don't want it.  Payday 2 developers mentioned making the game "Dark Souls" difficult.  And they kind of did, ever try hard difficulties by yourself, or fail a long hard mission and get basically nothing for xp or money (a punishment for trying harder and longer heists)?  And I can't play something else, there's not other games like it.

And the difficulty of Payday 2 and it's limited xp & cash rewards makes it a very unfriendly online community (the worst I ever played in), thank God I had an actual friend to play with online.  But it's not like it's all jerks playing, the way this game is designed inherently leads to online conflict.  People are so dependent on the random people they play with to perform well, and be on the same page, since failure is time wasted (since there's only like 8 short levels in the game, you want to earn when you replay each level 25 times).  This leads to a lot of booting, rudeness, and other frustrations.


And yet, vocal hardcore fans get their way when they cry PayDay 2 is still not hard enough, so they add patches to make this game even harder and further slow down leveling up (which was already quite slow).  A bunch of crap, why didn't they just add super-extreme settings and let the hardcore folks play together in their non-fun difficulty?

spacecadet25
spacecadet25

I think I'll skip this, same as the Dark Souls game and the FIRST Ninja Gaiden (from the current era), and yes I did try Souls and Gaiden.  Thanks for giving me a heads-up on the difficulty, so I waste no time or money on this.

phbz
phbz

I just have to say this. This new trend of hard games, it´s just one more smoke screen, developers use to hide other underdeveloped aspects of their games. Anyone can make a extremely difficult game, and imo that´s so easy for developers as making an easy one.   

As for Bellow, in last E3 was among my favorite games. I´m really happy that it´s coming to PC. But now that I know how hard the game seems to be, it turned me a bit off. I was hoping for something more atmospheric. 


Nothing against hard games. DS is one of the best games I've ever played. But to me how easy or hard a game is, shouldn´t be among the fundamental characteristics of any game. 

SerOlmy
SerOlmy

Pass.

That is not why I play games that are primarily singleplayer in nature.  I play them to enjoy the story, maybe die a few times on the way to the end, and have an interesting journey maybe even enjoy doing whatever I want in a sandbox game like Skyrim.  Banging my head against a wall for hours at a time isn't my idea of enjoyment.  That why I don't play games like DS, Below, or MOBAs for that matter.  They hold no enjoyment for me.

tealmantis793
tealmantis793

In my lifetime will I ever be able to view this site without a headline article that references a Stanley Kubrick film? Will that ever be possible? 

Gravity_Slave
Gravity_Slave

I won't be playing this or DS ever again. It's one thing for a game to be a challenge but it's another when a game is cranked so high in the difficulty that it's almost unplayable.

The whole point to any game, most any game is to survive. There should be hope however unlikely. A way out. But when a game forces you to die repeatedly as a game mechanic...that's not challenging, it's stupid.

Playing games like these doesn't make you "hardcore", it means you're bored and stubborn enough to stick around.

Thanatos2k
Thanatos2k

Can we start demanding better pixel graphics from our indies?  When did "shapeless blobs" become the norm? 


I expect you to at least be as good as an SNES game if you're going pure pixels.

eternal_napalm
eternal_napalm

I wish some Dark Souls 2 players (the noobs) would recognize this and stop crying the game is too hard. The Dark Souls 2 community is enraged right now because patch 1.03 took the nerf bat to a bunch of bosses, bosses that were already way easier then the first game. Just to cater to whining noobs. FromSoft got such massive backlash they stopped posting on the official Dark Souls Facebook page, with dozens and dozens calling it Casual Souls now. It forced me to reject the patch, which also means no more online for me, and other changes are reported to make the hardest area in the game, at least arguably, the Shrine of Amana, an absolute cakewalk. The Last Giant, The Lost Sinner, The Duke's Dear Freja, Royal Rat Authority, Flexile Sentry ng+ and others got the nerf hammer. Another great franchise bites the dust. They already had dumbed down boss fights and added tons of healing wares.

NaturallyEvil
NaturallyEvil

@MooncalfReviews But the cool thing about Dark Souls that nobody mentions is that you can make most parts either really hard OR fairly easy depending on how you want to play the game.  If you play solo, much of it will be hard.  But if you play co-op, only one or two parts of the game are hard anymore.

Poodger
Poodger

@MooncalfReviews It isn't fun though if it is too easy. Might as well be a movie if there is no challenge.

Bhemont
Bhemont

@MooncalfReviews  It's hilarious to me how nerds are all 'like I care' when it comes to people that enjoy talking about more difficult games. I really give a crap! Honestly, why else would I be posting this rant. The point is to have fun. If you're into different style of gaming and like to talk about it then great. There are all kinds of people out there enjoying different things , I like to rant about those that are rubbing it in my face. Stop feeling so smug just because you've completed some really hard games. I need to see some conversations on the internet about games that appeal to me, like mario bros.

MrBunson
MrBunson

@Gooeykat I finished Dark Souls a few months ago, then I finished DS2. Loved them both. I'm gonna start Demon's Souls tonite...and I can't wait!!!

Poodger
Poodger

@DarthLod I simply get bored with a game almost immediately if it is easy.

crix01
crix01

@DarthLod  "Some people play games for FUN" 


And you think people who play challenging games don't? We get our fun from the challenge. Without challenge we get bored. "Fun" is not always the same for everyone. And we don't do it because we think we are better than everyone or to "boost our childish ego". We do it for FUN.


You complain of someone for being rude and elitist by being rude and elitist yourself. Ironic.

translucent17
translucent17

Jesus this is the first comment I read..... Made me lol while I was lying in bed and I woke my wife up....... Jerk

Gelugon_baat
Gelugon_baat

@DAOWAce  

Didn't Dark Souls do the exact same thing with its New Game Plus's? The enemies do appear to have increased health and damage in those next playthroughs, don't they?

There is that, and the Bonfire Ascetic.

In other words, I don't think that you should have mentioned Dark Souls there.

Poodger
Poodger

@spacecadet25 I would rather the people who don't want hard games be punished instead of the people who do want hard games.

blitzinD
blitzinD

@phbz "...it´s just one more smoke screen, developers use to hide other underdeveloped aspects of their games."


Indeed. It may in fact be the oldest smokescreen in the game developer's handbook.


This isn't a part of video game history I've been overly pleased to see resurface. Yes a very well made very difficult game can be great, but so few are. I remember playing games for hours and hours only to die and have to restart from the very beginning. You would fight back to that point learn from your mistake and move forward another big chunk before "learning another lesson" and it was rewarding (and possible) to finally finish


But for every one of those games there were many more games where you simply died repeatedly over and over for varying, unclear and at times random reasons. Those games were only played by masochists and kids who only owned one or two games for their game system.

Poodger
Poodger

@SerOlmy Your game style sounds soooooo boring to me. Strolling around games like a walk in the park just sounds bland.

96augment
96augment

@Gravity_Slave You know you can summon some NPC's and other players to help you out? Dark Souls may be challenging. But it's not "almost unplayable". 

SipahSalar
SipahSalar

@Thanatos2k  I guess im ok with it if the studio was severely lacking in money, but yeah, these graphics are extremely deprived.

Gravity_Slave
Gravity_Slave

Ever think that you're the minority and us "noobs" are the majority. DS isn't just hard, it's its so difficult that it alienates a huge chunk of the gaming community.

Imagine you're playing basketball (I know it's a stretch for you), imagine no matter what you did, the other players and the ref have it out for you. The players constantly foul you and the refs do nothing but call fouls on you. You can't score because the net is 50 feet in the air and the other teams is chest level.

That's what Dark Souls is to everyone else. The fact is...just because a handful of you who have more patience than a social life, doesn't mean you're better than us.

Thanatos2k
Thanatos2k

@eternal_napalm You can still join the covenant of champions.  You can still use bonfire ascetics.


Cry more?

DAOWAce
DAOWAce

@Gelugon_baat New Game+ is optional.  I'm basing anything I say on the standard new game difficulty.

faizanhd
faizanhd

@Gelugon_baat

But , the game still depends on precision for its difficulty.

If you had near perfect skill , its possible to beat the whole game at soul level 1.

But if you want the perfect example of tough but fair , Super Meat Boy is the ticket.

300 levels , but your character has the same ability late game as he did in the beginning.

Only thing that can level up is your skill.

squantobecky
squantobecky

@Gravity_SlaveDS is supposed to be difficult. If it's too hard don't play it. And no I don't think I'm better than you.

Gelugon_baat
Gelugon_baat

@DAOWAce  

Then you could have said that earlier if you don't want to be contradicted.

Gelugon_baat
Gelugon_baat

@faizanhd

I agree with your opinion, but I would emphasize here that Dark Souls does nevertheless resort to the usual statistical upgrades for enemies as a way to increase "difficulty".

Foxhound1982
Foxhound1982

@squantobecky @Gravity_SlaveThe patch should have taken the more able player in mind and made the difficulty nerf optional. I haven't started souls 2 yet (still playing the first) but i hope it hasn't been turned into skyrim

Gravity_Slave
Gravity_Slave

Admit it. DS goes beyond difficult. It's not like you have a chance at survival...you're supposed to die...a lot. That's not just being too difficult, that's just ridiculous. But you're right, I don't play them anymore. I got better things to do. If I want to be frustrated I'll go gamble at a casino