Preview: Below

While I enjoyed a number of unreleased games at this year’s PAX East, nothing stole my heart quite like Below. Capybara’s upcoming adventure title elicited deep emotion in me multiple times during my roughly thirty minutes of playtime. Astoundingly beautiful, Below demonstrates how the smallest details can often have the largest impact. Easily the best game I played at PAX East, words do not truly give it justice. Before describing what I played, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: Below is already my front-runner for Game of the Year in whatever year it ends up being released in. 

• Developer: Capybara Games
• Publisher: Microsoft Studios
• Reviewed on: PC
• Also Available On: Xbox One
• Release Date: TBA

Below places the player in control of a wanderer exploring the caves below a mysterious, desolate island. Your character is miniscule compared to the vast environments surrounding him, creating a dramatic sense of vulnerability. An exploration-based game with difficult, yet fluid combat, Below is the culmination of all of the risk-taking inherent in indie game development. It is a stunning combination of The Legend of Zelda,  Dark Souls, Spelunky, and Journey. Yes, you read that correctly.

[youtube id=”8wuR9lOnGNo”]

Gorgeous procedurally-generated environments surround iconic set pieces, giving Below‘s world a grand sense of mystery. Capybara has done a brilliant job in making the randomized caves seem delicately designed. If I had not been told this was a procedural game, I would have had no idea that any environmental randomization was taking place. Raindrops of varying density shine in front of thousands of grass petals dancing in the wind. Incredible sound design, from the crackling sounds of a storm to the effects of your wanderer splashing through a puddle allow for complete immersion. Anyone doubting whether video games can be considered art simply need to experience Below‘s wondrous details.

The gameplay is punishing, yet completely fair. The comparison to Dark Souls might lead you to think that the combat is clunky or rough, but fear not. The responsiveness of the sword and bow (the two weapons I used during playing) was astounding. I felt completely in control of my wanderer at all times, meaning any failure was entirely my fault. Limited health gives a distinct, roguelike feel to Below; make no mistake, you will die a lot in this game.

Below was easily the best game at PAX East 2014.

Below was easily the best game at PAX East 2014.

Movement is fluid, with the ability to walk, run, or dash at one’s disposal. While the environment was always much larger than my character, I never felt as though I was struggling to get to where I wanted to go. The most apt comparison for Below‘s movement system is Halo, strangely enough. In Halo, the freedom of movement is refreshing, as, on foot, one can either hop or run to his or her desired destination. I found myself continuously dashing from point to point, but I witnessed numerous players leisurely strolling towards their respective destinations as well.

There is no linear narrative in Below, as a set story could potentially undermine the game’s engrossing ambiguity. It is entirely up to the player to determine what is happening in this mysterious world. The environment tells its own story at times, but each player has the potential to interpret its “story” in different ways. This is the beauty of Below; it inspires both indescribable feelings and the desire to continuously learn.

Below's procedurally-generated caves provide endless exploration and challenging combat.

Below‘s procedurally-generated caves provide endless exploration and challenging combat.

Below‘s sentimentality is what stunned me the most. While watching others play got me somewhat excited for my turn, the emotional impact this mysterious world had on me shook me to my core. The most notable moment came when I decided to kill my first wanderer, as the death of one character means gaining control of an entirely new wanderer. I wanted to see this mechanic in action, so I allowed a set of red, glowing rock beasts to murder me without any resistance. When my green wanderer died, a blue character was born…and then the music kicked in.

[youtube id=”1Br9tnV9j_0″]

In the beginning of the video above, you can hear the same transition from rain to song that I did at this moment. Maybe you think I am exaggerating the power of this audio transition, but allow me to fully explain its power before judging its impact. Below made me feel woefully small, and the scale of the world caused me to contemplate times in my life where I too felt minuscule. This connected me to that first wanderer, so when I decided to let him die for the sake of journalism, it actually affected me. The mysterious music that started upon the birth of my second wanderer amplified my feelings of loss, turning this moment into one not unlike reaching the mountain in Journey.

Finding the body of a previous player was astoundingly powerful as well. In picking up his bow amid a pile of bones, my jaw dropped. My predecessor had left the demo area, and apparently his character left the world with him. This was not something that was designed, as I picked up the controller right after he put it down. My initial wanderer was this player’s second wanderer, so one of the defining moments of my demo experience was actually a complete accident.

This pathway led me towards a giant shipwreck, the backdrop for two of the most powerful moments I experienced during the demo.

This pathway leads to a giant shipwreck, the backdrop for two of the most powerful moments I experienced during the demo.

Below‘s enemy AI is staggeringly emotionally aware. In front of a large shipwreck, I wandered up to a pack of wild ghost-dogs. I had briefly stopped to take in my surroundings when one of these dogs decided it would cuddle up to my wanderer’s legs. I had done nothing wrong to these creatures, so they treated me as a friend. I then decided to kill one of the other dogs with my bow, which caused his brethren (including the one lying at my feet) to look at what happened, get enraged, and attack. I was absolutely floored;  the enemies in Below have real feelings.

Perhaps this preview appears to be hyperbolic in its praise. Perhaps the trailers seem to be unimpressive. Perhaps this game does not appear to be as special as I am making it out to be. My only response to these hypothetical criticisms would be to experience Below for yourself when it is released. The only disappointment I have with it is the fact that I have to wait to play more.

Official Game Site

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