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Earlier this year I was captivated by Oxenfree, an indie side-scroller that took place on a remote island starring a bunch of teens. The dialogue was sharp, and there was a good mystery. Months later, that island is a place I’ll need to revisit. Although the characters were visibly tiny, the vibe of the game was intimate.
Below, the latest from Toronto-based studio Capybara Games, has a similar feeling that permeates throughout the demo again. You are on an island, and you can’t zoom in on your character that has arrived via boat. Both overwhelm with gigantic landscapes; Oxenfree was wide from side to side while Below is big with a top-down perspective. Both games never lets you forget how small humans are in the literal and figurative big picture.
In Below, there’s an even stronger sense of isolation since the tiny being you control is all alone (from what can be gathered so far). As I explored the cavernous ‘below’ from which the game takes its title, various wildlife are out to kill you. When I wasn’t swiping my sword, I kept my distance from enemies. If, however, a beast does take a bite, you’ll start to bleed and will need to tend to that. The island is Below is not a friendly place.
Crafting is a large focus in Below. You will need to combine the items you find while exploring, if just to keep your health intact. I was told by the helpful Capy rep that my bleeding wasn’t going to stop as the red stomach icon drained. I needed to make a bandage or cauterize the wound. That meant building a fire, and, you guess it, putting some kind of hot poker on my skin. My character might be diminutive on screen, but his reaction to being burned was noticeable. Elsewhere I found cabbage and other edibles that I could combine to make soup. I could just have eaten the cabbage for a quick health boost, but making an actual meal is preferred and has a more powerful effect.
For the most part, Below, is minimal on any kind of tutorial. It makes sense, in the logic of the world, but I did find it confusing when, for instance, I would attempt to craft something. Three slots would pop up, but the HUD wouldn’t tell me what I needed. There is no simple “1 cabbage, 2 broth, 1 chicken = soup” instruction. Even weirder, if you do manage to make something, the recipe is not recorded. You’ll just have to remember the combination or write it all down. I’m hoping since this isn’t coming out until the Fall, that they add a few rudimentary item logs.
Visually, the game is appropriately vast in detail and even color scheme. Soft muted greys and brown—the primary color palette—fill the screen as the action takes up very little space. The music, while eerie, can be comforting too. Moving around these big landscapes can feel a tad slow, but there is a run button that works great. Unlike the lack of recipes, the maps of the levels are helpful in telling you how many exits each section you have at any given time.
The gameplay can be described as roguelite; every time you die, items, enemies, and even the level layout can change (but there is no permanent death). Its procedurally-generated levels get away from the monotony of playing the same section over and over if you happen to perish a lot. The full campaign will last about ten hours, as stated by the rep for Below.
There may not be a story, but like another PAX East title Lumo, the joy is in the exploration and the sense of figuring out the game's secrets (there’s a heavy leaning on alien markings just like Oxenfree) and learning to survive despite a lack of resources. When you make a fire or look at a weird ancient structure deciding where to go next, your mind creates its own narrative. That’s the kind of achievement few works can pull off. I’m hoping Below can rise to the challenges inherent in its creative approach, when it releases in Q2/Q3 2016 for PC and Xbox One.