I watched a half of a dozen PAX East attendees play Below while I wanted for my appointment with Nathan Vella, the co-founder and president of Capybara Games. A few players jerked Below's helmet-clad hero about as they played. I figured they were doing so to make him move quicker, much like someone might repeatedly roll Link to speed him up in a Legend of Zelda title. I wondered whether or not the character's walking speed might be too slow. I asked Nathan about it just before my demo session began.
“Everything in Below has an intention,” Nathan told me. “All of the decisions, whether they're aesthetic, gameplay, or music, serve a purpose to the atmosphere and the tone of the game.”
I found these words to ring true by the time my demo session concluded. Below, due out as a timed exclusive for Xbox One and later on Steam, isn't a game players should rush through. That much was made clear in my first thirty seconds of play. I began on a beach beneath a cave. A slow rock climb up a cliff face right at the beginning sets Below's pace well. Once I climbed the cliff and entered the cave, I spent a few screens descending steep stairs. I came into a room with a small waterfall and a campfire. I came across no enemies up until this point, but just beyond was the beginning of Below's mysterious dungeon. With no exposition and an well-established pace and atmosphere from the very beginning, I couldn't resist wondering what waited below.
Drawing inspiration from rogue-like games, permanent death creates a constant tension when venturing into the dungeon. For the sake of the PAX East demo, players respawned at the campfire after dying. However, Nathan informed me players will respawn back on the beach in the retail game. A trek back up to the cave and down the steep stairs adds a solid minute or two of gameplay. All this is done in the name of pace and atmosphere. Nathan wouldn't spoil how, but some mechanic will allow the player to skip parts of the dungeon once it is discovered.
Most floors randomly generate upon death with a fog-of-war effect blacking out unexplored sections. Other floors act as reoccurring set pieces to give the game more awe-inspiring moments, like a beached ship I discovered or an ancient crypt I looted a spear from. Much like the paced movement speed, exploration is a slow affair. Deadly traps dot the floors. Some poisoned me and slowed my movement further, others hit hard enough to cause me to bleed out and die slowly, and some just skewered my hero outright and sent me back to the campfire to try again. I soon learned Below features a brutal difficulty, and patience, above all else, was key if I wanted to see the next floor.
Strange creatures glowed red in the dark, and made up the bulk of the enemies I fought. I made quick work of them—most of the time. They surprised me more than once. One jumped out of the way of a sword thrust and lunged at me from the side, and another encounter saw three flank me while I hid behind my shield. Below's hero uses a sword and shield as his default weapon set, but along the way I found both a spear and a bow.
Despite the simple hack-and-slack system, battles were surprisingly intricate with clever AI and a variety of weapons. The spear featured several moves I wouldn't have discovered if it weren't for Nathan pointing them out, like a lunge and a thrust attack. Discovery appeared to be a reoccurring theme because I found myself asking Nathan “what does this do?” often, only for him to have me work it out for myself. For instance, I found a leather strap on the ground, and used it to reinforce my health by wrapping it around my chest. No description told me this was the effect when the strap was used. Grass, meat, and potions filled my bag as well, each of which I only had a vague idea of their purpose. This lack of explanation created a refreshing sense of mystery because it is clear Below will hold no hands in order to maintain the game's well-defined tone.
My time was up long before I was satisfied with how much I played. There were mechanics I hadn't worked out in the short time I played Below, and the small taste Nathan provided left me longing to play in the comfort of my home, surround sound headphones on and the lights dimmed, so I could die, learn, and explore at my own pace. Below isn't a game meant to be played on a busy show floor, rushed and surrounded by dozen of gamers. It isn't a game meant to be played half distracted, asking the game's creator questions, either. Below was made with a purpose, and the demo showed me it is meant to be played with patience, attention to detail, and the thirst to discover what lies below.