Below has finally re-emerged after an indefinite delay - and developer Capybara Games says it'll be out at some point in 2018.
I've had my eye on Below ever since its eye-catching announcement during Microsoft's E3 2013 press event. Its reveal trailer teased a mysterious, menacing action-adventure game viewed from a top-down perspective, with the camera pulled back to the point where your sword and shield-wielding warrior is tiny on-screen. As the title of the game suggests, you explore the deep, dark depths, with little to no hand-holding.
Details have been scarce so far. Old builds revealed Below to be a roguelike with inspiration taken from FromSoftware's Souls series. A while ago it was pegged for release in the summer of 2016, but in August of that year Capy announced Below was delayed indefinitely. The studio went dark to get the game sorted, and now, nearly two years later, Capy has pulled back the curtain. I had the chance to play the game at a recent event in London, and it turns out Below is just as menacing and enticing as I'd hoped it would be - and it's bloody brutal.
In the build I played, Below begins with the player character arriving on an island by boat. Then you're in control. No tutorial. No on-screen hints. No tips. It's up to you to work out not just what to do, but why you should do it. Why am I here? No idea. Where am I? No idea. Where am I going? No idea. But one thing I do know: I need to go somewhere.
Nearby is an abandoned camp. There you light a fire and discover there's a basic crafting system which ties into Below's survival mechanics. You need to eat and drink as you play, otherwise you'll die. Thankfully, you can pick up food, such as fish, drink from water pools and store water in bottles for later.
You push forward, climbing up a rock face to the grass-covered top of the island. It's here where the wonderful music ramps up and the camera pulls back to show off as much of the play area as possible. Below has a unique, otherworldly art style that at times makes it seem like something is behind the screen, scratching to get out. It's as if the world is ever so slightly out of focus. Below is a beautiful game, but there's a danger embedded within it. Lightning strikes make me jump. As I play, the feel of it all makes me think of a rose.
Out in the field, each hyper-real 4K blade of grass waving in the wind, it's hard not to mess about a bit, using your sword to trim the land old-school Zelda style. You fiddle about with the controls, working out this and that. There's a sprint. There's a jump attack. You can block with your shield, too. You stumble upon an area that triggers a question mark upon closer inspection - something to return to later. And then a strange obelisk-like formation with a glowing... thing to pick up. It's some kind of lantern, and with it you can project a beam of light in the twin-stick control style. Then it's onwards to a crack in the rock, and the journey below begins.
Underground, Below thrusts its mechanics and systems at the player with an unforgiving snort. There are fires to light - a clear nod to the Souls games - as well as darting, patrolling red blob enemies to kill. These enemies drop slithers of light that refill your lantern meter. There are traps to avoid and puzzles to solve. All the while you get the feeling you're going deeper down into the island depths, the camera zooming in and pulling out without you really noticing until it's too late and then you think, wow, this really does look amazing.
And then you die because the red blobs are a little fiddly to kill, you're still learning how to play and it turns out you bled out from a cut you received a few minutes ago. Death is permanent in Below, but upon it you respawn. For me, that respawn was at the beginning, arriving on the island on a boat again, and, I have to confess, I was a little soul-destroyed because I felt 20 minutes of play had gone to waste. My lantern missing, I sprinted back to catch up with my progress. Inside and below, things were different. Walls had shifted, rocks had reshaped, and water pools were elsewhere. Below re-imagines itself after the player dies, but your corpse, which holds your items including the lantern, is in the same sort of area. After some exploration I found myself, and soldiered on.
I continued with Below for another 20 minutes or so, getting a better feel for the game, sucking up its layered atmosphere and wrapping my head around its mechanics. But this is a game where the less you know going in the better, I feel, so I'll spare you the detail. I will say that I'm still thinking about Below days later, about what it all means and where the mysterious adventure is leading my little warrior, which is very much a good sign.
For Capy, the light is at the end of the tunnel after a protracted, troublesome five years of development. The staff there have had to battle technical issues (getting the game to run well with the camera pulled back as far as it does was a challenge, they tell me), as well as many, many design issues. Then there's the unique art style, a look Capy settled on after years of iteration.
I'm confident the wait will be worth it for both Capy and the players, although I get the feeling Below won't be for everyone. It's a roguelike, so expect to die. It's a survival game, so there's a fair bit to manage. And there's zero hand-holding, so things won't make sense for quite a while. For some, this will have all sounded brilliant. For others, horrendous.
For me? I'm fully on board. As Below looks like it's scratching to get out of my telly, I've got it under my skin.