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Through its tilt-shift 3/4-perspective view, Below is a lot like peering into a terrarium, only this world houses a world much larger than the bison-shaped island your adventurer arrives at. Without so much as an introduction, I combed the sandy beach in the pouring rain, looking for an objective. Soon, I found a large wall to climb, and that was followed shortly after by a cave begging to be explored. And so begins the descent into this curious adventure.
The first room I encountered had two other exits and a place to start a fire. To the northeastern corner was an area with a small lake and some weapons, a bow and a spear, on its shore, but I could only grab one or the other. I went with the spear. And it was through several trials descending through Below’s levels that I figured out how to use it to fish in that pool of water. Though it takes a little timing, I eventually had three creatures in my sack, waiting to be consumed.
As I played, the demo offered no guidance, so a lot of what I discovered was just through trial and error. The aforementioned fire, once lit, offers two options via pictographs: to cook or to sleep. I had little to cook with, nor could I make anything happen, so I tried sleeping. To my surprise, this brought me to a little cove with places to store food, crafting and crafted items, crystals, and my lantern. Eventually, I learned that this area is the only persistent one through the game’s randomly-generated dungeons. If I died, anything I stored there would be available for the next me.
It's fair to assume this becomes pivotal the deeper you go, assuming you don’t want to lose out on extra sets of helpful items in the difficult areas. Armed with a shield and sword, you encounter a lot of curious creatures adorned with red crystals—tiny ones that snake around you and try to ram you, single-armed foes that try to go toe-to-toe, and double-armed ones that can block with both arms or use them to stagger you. And if any of them chip at your health, your life just bleeds out until you use a bandage or eat special mushrooms, a dangerous endeavor while you’re surrounded. But if you slash at these foes successfully, they drop crystals you can use to fuel your lamp, which highlights traps that’ll trip or kill you.
I didn’t initially realize the importance of the food I was finding—bunches of grass, cabbage, onions, and meat like fish or bat steaks—until my fairly unadorned screen starting to display an icon of a stomach, half-empty and depleting further. Staying alive through effective combat skill was not enough; Below expects me to both eat and hydrate, which both encourages foraging and discourages spending too much time standing around. While I’d normally be very cautious exploring a game like this, especially when each new room is shrouded in clouds, I found myself wandering quickly through each and taking out enemies blocking my way so that I wouldn’t starve to death.
Crafting items, like everything else, lacks any clear instructions, but rather than let you waste items through (completely) blind experimentation, Below offers some kind of guidance through music. When rummaging through your crafting items, selecting the first one triggers a musical tone. Pick another useful item, and you’ll hear a second tone, the melody being completed with a third item. If you get a flat note, you messed up and will need to pick different things. Eventually, I found myself making bandages, arrows, and torches while I explored, and various kinds of healing soups at bonfires.
My time with the demo revealed quite a bit about the core mechanics, but I only barely started encountering enemies unlike the crystal-bearing creatures that annoyed me in the beginning. From trailers and promotional materials, it looks like Below has a lot hidden under its belt, and I’ve barely scratched under the surface. With still no release date other than “this summer,” Xbox One and Steam players will just need to hold it together above ground until we get some quality info.