I usually love when a game takes awhile to be made. There is that hope they will use that extra time to fix all the game’s technical issues. Now I know this isn’t always true. A game can still have technical and gameplay problems. After spending five years in development BELOW is an example with the latter problem of gameplay issues.
BELOW is an aesthetically pleasing game capturing the dark and moody vibe you would expect from delving into a dungeon below a cave. It’s dark, dreary, wet, and just all-around brooding in its atmosphere. But it is in BELOW’s slow-paced gameplay where the game falters. Few encounters are challenging, aspects of gameplay are poorly explained, while still being strong staples of the roguelite genre. So, it does have functioning gameplay, but all it offers is a surface level understanding of its mechanics.
BELOW’s story is ambiguous. Like very ambiguous. And there are only a handful of small hints as to what the story is about. You’re a warrior/adventurer who has sailed to this dreary island and you enter the cave and delve its depths. For what, who knows. Possibly for these little light crystals that fuel a strange lantern on your belt.
The world you enter into in BELOW is dark. And I mean very dark and foreboding atmosphere which I really dig. Especially, with a title like BELOW your game’s aesthetic better be dark and foreboding. Several dark colors and hues. Many of the areas of the depths are VERY dark for obvious reasons. The game uses darkness quite well to capture that feeling of being lost and surviving in the depths.
BELOW is largely absent of music. Music only occurs at the campfire. What little music there is, is very ethereal, yet brooding. Plenty of cave sound effects such as dripping water, echoes and ambient silence. The sound of your sword whooshing through grass and bouncing off stone and metal are all there and they sound amazing as they echo through the depths. Creature sounds are fitting with screeches and clicks you would associate with creatures that live in the dark. Much like its visuals BELOW has excellent sound aesthetics.
While BELOW excels in its aesthetics, it struggles with its gameplay. And it isn’t so much that it lacks function or form. It more so fails to explain its own mechanics. It has your typical survival/ rougelite elements. Hunger and thirst management are important. Permadeath with the ability to find your body with your old equipment. Fighting is standard action game combat. Sword and shield with a three-swing combo. Doesn’t seem to be any more complicated than that. All of the usual mechanics are there.
One of the more unique mechanics BELOW has is the little lantern hanging from your waist. By collecting the little light crystals that I mentioned at the start you can fuel this lantern as a much needed light source in the depths when you don’t have torch. These crystals are mainly gathered by killing enemies. But beyond being a source of light and somehow imoportant to the story, I don’t see what else the lantern offers in gameplay.
You can find materials in the depths to create equipment like arrows and torches. Can even craft ingredients into other ingredients. For example, three embers can be turned into a pile of phosphorus for explosives. There is a campfire that functions as a resting space to create equipment and cook more nourishing food. It makes finding ingredients important and use the You do play as a slightly different character for each run. The garb and style of dressing is the same, but with slightly different patterns and colors.
One of BELOW’s other drawbacks is its slow pacing bordering on boring. There are things to do in most of the rooms in the depths, but nothing really stands out. The pacing in the survival is also completely off. Very little food ever shows up. Which is understandable with a roguelite game, but it feels so inconsistent that it is the reason for me dying in every run I played through. Every other resource is in available enough to survive even a little bit. I just wish food sources could be gathered and found more often, so my deaths aren’t only caused by one condition.
Does a very poor job of explaining its own mechanics. I get what the game is telling me in what it is doing, but I still feel like I’m not entirely sure what exactly is happening. The one mechanic in particular with a lack of explanation was playing through an old run. The campfire before entering the cave is able to be turned a blue color and once you do it transports you to an alternate cave…I think.
All I know is as I explored I found my old body. I’m going to assume this was my old run. I’m not sure if I had continued without messing with the flame if it would have been a fresh run without my characters old body and stuff. But this moment is one of many in which the game doesn’t go out of the way to explain itself. I’m still determining if it’s good or bad.
BELOW’s aesthetic is impressive. There is no doubt about that. It captures the oppressiveness of darkness in the cold depths of an increasingly dangerous cave. And its gameplay mechanics are incredibly easy to use and fitting for a roguelite. But, the pace is insanely slow and those gameplay mechanics are poorly explained, to the point of confusion. I still don’t entirely understand what I’m doing when I interact with certain parts of the game. I know I did something, but I’m not sure what exactly it is I did. I’m really mixed about this one. It isn’t a terrible game. It could just be better.