Below is getting a lot of buzz. This exploration/survival game is a moody, unique and at times captivatingly immersive experience. But it’s also a surprisingly tough game that only a certain kind of gamer will really love.
Right from its opening moments, Below establishes itself as something very different. No running and gunning here, no quickly paced story cuts or definite goals to be pushed toward and reached. No, this is a game of slow progression and patient persistence.
The story opens over a vast expanse of black water on a blustery night. And as the camera slowly floats down through the thickly clouded skies we notice a tiny point of light: a small sailboat bobbing on the roiling seas.
It’s our sailboat. And as our perspective continues to drift downward, that boat eventually deposits us—a tiny, featureless figure seen from a top-down perspective—on the rainy beach of a large, foreboding island.
After a little searching we find an old, crumbling campsite here, a left-behind spear there, a lantern, an open cave. It’s obvious that this is a place with dark secrets. People—and maybe other things—have come before us. And in a pitch-black cave, long lines of stone staircases lead down to places that almost cry out to be explored.
These atmospheric and isolated first steps, mixed with a brooding but emotionally evocative musical score, offer an intriguing introduction to Below. But as you venture forth, there is no expected opening narration. No visual prompts. No obvious direction to go. No tutorial system. No … anything.
Oh, you’ll soon find random items—vegetables, water, embers, string, stout sticks, etc.—but you have to figure out how to combine them and craft the things you need without any instructions. You can find shortcuts, light campfire checkpoints, access resting points where you can store extra items, learn how to navigate hazardous areas and fight off dangerous creatures. But you must figure out how to do everything, and survive, all on your own.
Oh, and in the process, you die. Repeatedly.
That process of exploring and dying, experimenting and dying, swinging your sword and dying, running out of water and food and dying can get very frustrating. But in a way, I think that’s the point of this game. It’s sort of like a Dark Souls title, only without the truly bleak and M-rated bits.
This gaming adventure is designed to push your endurance and challenge your problem-solving skills. Trying and failing is expected, and even the tiniest success becomes a high point here. And the game doesn’t care how frustrating it all gets. That’s part of the “fun.” Below is also more than willing to change things up on the fly just to make things tougher.
When your character falls into an unexpected trap, or gets killed by a fierce beast (indicated by a tiny spatter of dark blood), you start over as another adventurer landing on the night-shrouded beach up above. And the only way you can retrieve the supplies you were carrying is to trek back down to where you last succumbed and pick things up from there. But although the overall structure of the world remains similar, the stony caves and connecting rooms you enter may be different or rearranged, all the more to bedevil and challenge you.
I should also mention that this game keeps its overall resolution and meaning fairly cloudy and hard-to-define, too. Are there monsters afoot? Is there villainy in the air? It would seem so. But how it all really fits together is left to your interpretation, your construction … sorta like everything else in the game.
If that all sounds like pure gaming joy to you, well, you may be that certain kind of gamer this title was crafted for. Below is well-made and nasty-content free. But for many younger gamers it may fall well below the dungeon-crawling merriment they were perhaps expecting.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.