Into the deep end.
Below—with its cavernous visuals, enveloped in saturated shadows and indigo hues, generously and ominously expanded on a wide screen at its station—stood out at Microsoft's pre-PAX indie showcase without needing to make any sound. A diminutive warrior wielding a sword and shield, wandered about the darkened bowels of the earth, precariously stepping into the unknown with the faint light of a torch. Sometimes he would find patches of soft grass swaying by a ledge or a refreshing spring made by streams trickling along the rocks. Raising a lantern against a circular wall revealed glowing pictographs that reveal the unspoken narrative. Spelunking truly never looked so gorgeous.
But don't let the visual splendor of Below catch you off-guard. Capybara Games, a Toronto-based indie game studio best known for Critter Crunch and Super Time Force, doesn't shy away from difficulty. Somewhere between the punishing combat of the Souls series and the survival roguelike qualities of Don't Starve, Below will test your precision and studious exploration. The dungeons, and the hostile creatures that inhabit them, are randomly generated and one simple hit from a lowly snake can leave your warrior bleeding until he's just another corpse.
Below is not the type of fantastical adventure where the hero can withstand many hearts' worth of damage and, in godlike fashion, shrug off the realities of hunger, thirst, and severe temperatures. Once your warrior is nicked by a foe, he will continue to leave a trail of blood until you expend a bandage, consume enough mushrooms of a particular type, or heal at a campfire. If you gather enough edible ingredients like meat, water, and mushrooms, you can brew soups that take care of hunger, thirst, and pain all at once. And if you're lucky enough to secure some leather, you can begin creating patches of light armor that will give you more endurance.
That said, these healing and protection items are scarce so walking into a room with over twenty monsters, all surrounding a key that you need to unlock the stairwell to the next area, is like being smothered by death and regret. But so long as you understand enemy patterns and know when to dash and raise your shield, surviving is possible. Like the Souls games, Below expects you to face death numerous times, revive at the nearest bonfire, and (hopefully) learn from your mistakes. After falling twice to annoyingly pint-sized slithering, err, things, I decided to take an aggressive approach, which was surprisingly a much more effective strategy. Against larger beetle-like foes, I whipped out the bow and arrow to pierce their hides from a distance, though avoiding enemies altogether and heading straight to the next screen is just as effective a method for survival too.
Below has no set launch date beyond 2015, but it will have multiplayer components and it will release for Windows and Xbox One. Keep an eye out for this one, as we have an editor's choice award ready for pinning.