Below is a roguelike about exploring a series of descending caves on a mysterious island that seems to dare adventurers to come and see if they can survive its challenges. You can craft food and potions, hunt wildlife, and if you die, another adventurer will make their way to the island to quite literally pick up where you left off by acquiring the lamp you dropped on the ground when you died. Despite the density of mechanics and the vague story about a mysterious island that seems to draw in those courageous enough to find it, Below does not offer much on-screen text or tutorial. Alongside the challenge of surviving, figuring out the game’s myriad mechanics, and how to take advantage of them, is one of the things developer Capy Games hope players embrace.
“I am worried about it,” creative director Kris Piotrowski says, “It is a decision that has risks to it, for sure.” Piotrowski recalls the first time he played Minecraft with a wiki open nearby explaining how the game worked, and that was part of the reason he enjoyed the experience. The community was there to help. “I remember when I first played Dark Souls, there was so much to it that wasn’t explained and I feel like communities can be built around players helping each other learn and figure out things out,” Piotrowski says. That of course lead to a familiar comparison.
“I think Dark Souls is a brilliant game and the comparison is nothing but complimentary from my perspective,” Piotrowski says regarding the familiar refrain that many games receive these days: it’s like Dark Souls! And in some ways it is. You open shortcuts to the islands assorted lower levels as you play, combat is precise and challenging and when you die, there is incentive to go back and picked up what you dropped, but Below certainly has an identity of its own. “This is a weird game that has a lot of weird little things in it, but it’s also a game where you have a sword and shield and it has combat that sort of feels like Zelda or Dark Souls,” Piotrowski says.
Despite his worry about the ambiguous nature of the game, Piotrowski is confident players will be able to figure out the game. “There is a bit of an entry-level starting point that I think players kind of wrap their heads around. I think games have gone very far in the direction of hand-holding and telegraphing and rewarding players continuously. That kind of slow dopamine drop of gameplay cycles that are finely tuned to keep you in the game and sort of spoon feed you every little detail. I think most games do that and I think certain game fans like to just approach a game and try to figure it out,” Piotrowski says. “I think there is pleasure in trying to figure out the mechanics. When a game tells you, ‘Hey, you’re on your own!’ a different part of your brain turns on.”