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Below and Beneath

The adventure begins...I had been looking forward to Below for several years and promptly bought it when it launched on Steam in December 2018. However, I did not touch it at all until this past October, roughly five years after said launch and three years after its most significant post-launch update, which added the easier Explore mode. A large part of why I had held off of playing it for so long was because the conditions had to be right. I had to be in the right mood, it had to be the right time, before I started it. When this year’s spooky season started, I finally decided that it was time.

Well, I completed Below on Friday. Instead of writing a full-on review, let me direct you to this one on GameSpot, which is fairly detailed and accurate. I had gotten through most of the Survive mode before taking a break and coming back to it a few days ago. However, instead of continuing with the Survive run, I started an Explore one. I had gotten pretty far into Survive, but left off in those later levels described in the GameSpot review, where slow, careful exploration has to take a back seat to frantic action. There are multiple temporary points-of-no-return in those later sections, too, which only compounds the stress.

So yeah, that tonal shift isn’t sudden, plot-wise, but a bit jarring in terms of gameplay. You no longer have the time or ability to freely explore and gather resources, and healing up is best done only at certain times. What was once a merely tense game becomes stressful. These late-game areas were a major reason why I started over in Explore, and after a couple of long, absorbing play sessions, I reached the regular ending and then the True Ending, which requires collecting all of the lantern’s scattered light fragments. Along the way, there were a few things I looked up via the Steam community when faced with difficulty in Survive, and to confirm how to get the last fragment in Explore. The True Ending was grim, and not what I expected; it’s a type of conclusion which is rare in video games.

A typical dungeon in Below.
Aside from that shift and other quirks mentioned in the GameSpot review, one thing about the game that feels superfluous are the randomly generated elements. These are pretty much limited to how new weapons and armor are distributed, the locations of crafting materials and even a few light fragments, and the layouts of rooms. The ordering of the rooms as they interconnect within dungeons remains more or less the same between lives, and the many areas outside of said dungeons are static. With all that in mind, the dungeon rooms are so dark, and the random elements so few, that it didn’t feel procedurally generated much at all. I wonder if the game could’ve been more interesting had each dungeon room been a unique design. Perhaps, for example, there could’ve been some puzzles to get into locked areas, as opposed to the simple ones in the finished game that are wholly dependent on what type of weapon is used.

I wouldn’t say Below is disappointing, but the finished product is not quite what I had expected. On that note, I enjoyed much of my time with the game and found it absorbing and aesthetically pleasing (in particular, Jim Guthrie’s soundtrack is brilliant), but it is also frustrating at times, and difficult to recommend.