Reviews - Updated on April 10, 2022

Canadian studio Capybara Games, even among indie developers, where every second fancies himself a new Jonathan Blow (Jonathan Blow), stands apart. By their own admission, the authors are engaged in audiovisual art and design, so games are made for a long time, carefully, and at the end we get something really special. In 2011, they released Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP – a game that has become almost a cult, showing an example of that same audiovisual art.

Two years later, the studio announced Below, in which the principles of audiovisual art were going to be applied to a much more pragmatic genre than the atmospheric “pixel” adventure of a Scythian girl with a sword – it’s about survival, built on the mechanics of a bagel. The task, of course, is not an easy one, the development went on for a long time and in some places painfully, but after five years Below still came out, becoming the first game from Capybara Games, which I want not only to praise unrestrainedly.

Audiovisual art?

Knowing the creators, it is not difficult to guess why their new project can and should be praised. The intro alone should make many directors and cameramen envious: five minutes of real time to enchanting electronic ambient mixed with the sound of waves, rain and thunderstorms, we see how the camera slowly lowers from the sky through lead clouds to a small sailboat lost in the black hole of the ocean , which eventually sails into the bay of a certain island and spits out an even smaller man with a sword on the shore.

This ingenious in its simplicity and metaphorical technique immediately assigns the player the role of a grain of sand in the ocean of dangers. To the sound of rain and lightning, a man with a sword runs along the shore, through the fields of tall grass, and there is no one around – only stone stairs going up along the walls of a huge rock, mysterious high towers made of black stone, circles flashing in the slits of lightning, it seems ritual. Yes, a strange lamp lying on a pedestal in the center of the circle. What, where, when, why are we here, where to go, why this lantern? And why, as soon as we took it, the air was filled with disturbing beeps – as if these distant ships, perishing either at sea or in space, warn us of an unknown danger? Unclear.

It is only clear that it will be survival in the style of expressionism, where not only the process is important, but also the tragic, dark, almost gothic mood. And we immediately plunge into the atmosphere of expectation of dangers and uncomfortable secrets, which at the same time disturb, frighten, but also beckon with their exciting uncertainty. That is why, in order to create such an atmosphere, the authors, by their own admission, moved the camera away from the character so much and minimized the “tutorial”, allowing the player to figure out what is happening and how a grain of sand can survive in the midst of this big, dangerous mystery.

Below is an overview of the game

The interface here is as minimalistic as the picture as a whole.

Look after yourself, be careful!

In principle, how to survive is clear. Entering the tower of black stone, we plunge floor by floor lower and lower, along the way we fight, collect resources and cook something at rare fires. Fights at the same time focus on hardcore – dodges, blocks, search for vulnerabilities and death from two or three hits. In fact, there is no stamina at all.

Defeated enemies drop crystals that serve as fuel for our magical miracle lamp – it is with its help that we open something, activate it, find keys, unlock new passages and move on. In some situations, she can scare away enemies with her light. Yes, and in principle, this is a more reliable source of illumination than a torch, and striving to go out.

We also collect all sorts of herbs, roots, slices of bread, stones, sticks, ropes, we even cut out the intestines from corpses. By the fire, you can make food, a healing patch, or mix the ingredients and get a nutritious soup that quenches hunger, thirst, and restores health at the same time.

Arrows, new weapons, more powerful equipment, elixirs – everything can be “crafted” by yourself. There are no specific recipes, what this or that elixir gives is not really clear, but the game highlights which ingredients can be combined with what. And pushes to the method of trial and error, to independent study and research. So, we ourselves find out that the hero can go fishing or hunt foxes and wolves, which sometimes meet and behave very peacefully. Or that you can just drink water from puddles in caves to quench your thirst.

Below is an overview of the game

It is always dark here and it is not clear what is happening.

With this knowledge, we run, joyful, forward and shouting “Oh, what are these twigs sticking out of the ground?” we run up to something red on the ground – and in the next moment, as a lifeless carcass, we settle on a trap that has torn the body. And we start all over again – again a small boat sailing into the bay of the island, and again the path is repeated up to the place of the last death, where you can pick up all the belongings and a priceless magic lamp …

No room for error

You will have to die and start over in Below more than once, not two, or even three. Yes, over time, having accumulated enough crystals, it will be possible to create a control point from the fire in order to quickly return to this level once. Shortening the path to the corpse of the previous hero is also allowed due to open shortcuts. But still, getting annoyed by running back and forth through familiar locations (“random” doesn’t change them too much) is very common.

Below is a really uncomfortable and complex “survivalist” that does not forgive mistakes. Enemies are becoming more and more dangerous, robots and golems appear, fights with “bosses” begin. Traps also come across more and more cunningly, they are not always immediately noticeable. On ice levels, we, among other things, need to make sure that the hero does not freeze.

Below is an overview of the game

“Fog of War” and darkness allow you to see only a short distance, illuminated by a lamp or torch.

And the further, the less resources. Food becomes especially rare – you can die from the fact that the game simply did not throw any of the food. Part of the problem can be solved by leaving things and resources in advance in our personal warehouse, where the hero is transferred as soon as he takes a nap at any fire.

At some point, you start to scold the authors – it seems that with all this hardcore they still went too far. And they themselves somewhat knocked down such a carefully constructed atmosphere of research into something mysterious and dangerous. Because when it’s cold and hungry, your pockets are empty, and the nearest fire is still far away, then you don’t have time to explore – you just run as fast as you can and “rush”.

Another reason to think about what kind of place this is.

***

And yet, despite the underlined roughness and unwillingness to somehow help the player (well, almost), Below for me personally became one of those rare “survivors” that I really wanted to go through to the end. Everything is too atmospheric, mysterious and beautiful in its own way. And I really want to know how it will all end, what kind of Darkness it was, which at some point itself begins to pull its tentacles towards the hero, what are these strange structures, pedestals and stone towers and where we will eventually come.

From this combination of hardcore, atmosphere and mystery, Capybara Games has a unique game. Operating with seemingly familiar mechanics (not in everything, however, successfully) and performing in a painfully familiar format, Below managed to preserve its narrative and remain, above all, a powerful audiovisual statement.

Pros: a well-balanced atmosphere of mystery and danger, which makes you explore the environment with interest; complex but addictive gameplay; stylish minimalist picture; incomparable music and overall work with sound.

Cons: the degree of hardcore in some places still crosses reasonable boundaries; too often you have to repeat everything from the beginning, and “random” does not diversify the levels much.

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