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The struggle between artistic vision and game design is a never-ending battle. In those rare moments when the vision aligns perfectly with good design, true classics are made. In all other cases, either the vision must be compromised or the gameplay is destined to suffer. BELOW is a classic case of this clash, a game with a very clear artistic vision that is executed to the letter, and is a worse game for that commitment. For every moment of incredible atmosphere and tantalizing mystery, there are at least two moments of intense frustration and needless tedium.
You have come to a remote, rain-drenched island. Ancient caves and passages are carved into this place, both by the elements and by toil. Your only means of accessing them is a strange lantern, powered by glowing jewels. Descending beneath the surface reveals a vast network of caverns, catacombs, and chambers filled with vicious creatures and deadly traps. Not only will you need to fight to survive in this hellish place, you’ll need to gather food and supplies to keep yourself alive. New weapons and equipment are also waiting to be found, and your lantern will need a steady stream of gems to remain powered. Careful exploration and skillful combat is the only way you will survive the descent to whatever lies at the bottom of this place.
From the moment you first step foot on the desolate beach of the island, the atmosphere of BELOW drips with dread. The overgrown fields and towering ruins stand ominously silent, and the caves below are dim and vast enough to leave you feeling like the only person still alive in the world. When the monsters come for you, they sometimes test your defenses, while other times they swarm relentlessly. You will never feel truly safe as you explore the depths, and once you feel as though you recognize all the dangers, new ones will arise to shatter that illusion. Creatures, traps, and worse things abound here, and your journey promises to be a long and arduous one.
“Arduous” is a good word to describe BELOW overall, and no, it’s not an ideal word to characterize a video game. I won’t spoil what your quest is because it won’t be apparent at first, but completing it will require far more than simply reaching the bottom of the caves. You’ll need to do a great deal of exploring and experimenting, as the secrets dotting the island are spread out over great stretches of cave, catacomb, and so on. Investigating a single floor of the descent can take a lot of time, depending on how it was randomly generated on this run, and there are several floors that all have identical themes, layouts, and monsters. The tedium of exploring these is very real, with not nearly enough variance in environments or challenges to prop up the hours of hunting and pecking you’ll need to do for crafting materials and mcguffins.
But tedium isn’t even really where this game falls apart. Repetitive gameplay can be forgiven if it leads to a compelling story, exciting battles, or the like. The real issue is that instead of that, the developers went all-in on their vision of a grim, punishing journey. Combat in BELOW is ridiculously deadly, with enemies able to bleed out literally all of your life on a single hit unless you bandage or cauterize the wound. Similarly deadly traps abound, and in the later areas there is a persistent threat that requires you to proceed slowly and carefully while still suffering tons of attrition to your life and supplies. Dying means you start the game all over AND have to recover your corpse, with only any shortcuts unlocked there to help cut down on wasted time. The crafting system is necessary to survive but gives you an incredibly restricted inventory to work with. And beyond the shortcuts, there’s only one fast-travel system that lets you go to one specific spot at the cost of gems that you’re going to have to grind for to get past another specific spot.
All this adds up to a game that’s frankly miserable to work through, and this is on the newer Exploration mode that was added! The original Survival mode is even MORE punitive, with instant death from traps and food and water to juggle as well. For a game that takes 10-12 hours to get through, this is an inexcusable amount of pressure and tedium to subject players to. The only thing I can say in the game’s defense is that I found the story to be worth it once I reached the conclusion, but even that’s bound to be a very contentious opinion. Like everything else in the game, the ending explains nothing and leaves much up to interpretation, which fits perfectly with the artistic vision presented by BELOW. But it is that very vision that drags the game down with frustrations and timesinks, and prevents me from recommending it to anyone.