22 de noviembre de 2019

[Review] Below

Xbox 360 was one of the biggest systems contributing to the growth of the indie market on consoles. Microsoft's initiative of Xbox Live Arcade allowed the creation of a lot of different games and that opened the gates of an actual flood. RPGs like Breath of Death 7, Cthulhu Saves the World or Bastion were born in that space. But then, when Xbox One was getting closer, Microsoft changed the entire system and every indie game they had up until then given a spotlight to got lost below all the popular titles crowding the Xbox 360 dashboard.

That was one of the biggest losses for their new system right when indie games were set up to be a crucial part of the catalogue for the new platform. Companies like SuperGiant Games (Bastion) who grew thanks to Microsoft decided to sign a temporal console exclusivity deal with PlayStation 4 for their incoming game, Transistor, and a lot of other indie developers followed through. Or outright abandoned Xbox One as a possible system under the impression that they were going to be thrown to the roadside.

Noticing too late the terrible mistake they made, Microsoft tried to save some projects signing temporal exclusivities with a couple of studios. One of those was Capybara Games, creators of Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes (launched first on Nintendo DS, but it eventually saw success on XBLA and PSN too), who would develop for them a Dungeon Crawler called Below. But that game, announced in 2013, went through serious development hell in part because of how the genre was growing with more and more titles, forcing them to tweak it over and over till they launched it last year, for Xbox One and PC. Did they manage to create a game that was worth the wait? Let's review it.
Below follows the idea of the Dungeon Crawler genre with real-time combat and Roguelike elements, like permadeath. At a glance, we might think it a game about exploring, collecting, fighting and crafting in familiar territory until something strikes you down. But the long-term strategy is actually about management of your own deaths. Where you die, how you die and what you carry when you die is just as important as anything you do while you are alive

By now Dark Souls has been more than overused as an example for a lot of different systems, but in this case it has some vibes similar to From Software's game. For example, bonfires await your traveller throughout the game and often at the intersection of levels. You can use these to create fast-travel warps but they only work once before requiring replenishment. And in the early levels we'd rather use those resources for something else, and that temptation has a strong pull on the player. We can also find our old explorer's body in the same place where we died, so reaching the same place where we fell is crucial to keep our strength between defeats... yet sometimes we'll be a lot stronger than we were when we find that body, making it more like extra income than anything else.

While Below offers useful ways to cheat the inconvenience of death, the reality is that you spend a lot of time scouring the places you’ve plundered many times before. It’s true that an element of procedural generation is built into level design meaning that rooms change from one playthrough to the next,  but these variations are only of marginal consequence. For example, a room on Level 3 will always be a collection of mossy, stony lanes and crevices dotted with pools and spike traps. It will always have one, two or three doors, plus similar monsters in the area.

This random generation relieves the boredom of repetition only slightly. More fundamental to the game’s continuing appeal is how it looks and sounds. Below is crafted with deeply competent artistry and coupled with an excellent soundtrack and audio effects. It places a tiny protagonist at the centre of a giant diorama of decay that emphasizes your isolation and your sense of inconsequence within the world you explore. You are a tough little warrior with your weapons and shield, but also vulnerable. We enter the dungeons with a full understanding that death awaits

Each room is a one-screen puzzle that’s swaddled in mist and blurring deliriously at the edges as the focus changes. You follow trails and encounter hostiles. These come in ever-more menacing forms. At first they are little more than yapping mites, easily killed with a swipe of the sword. Later they are fully armed sentries. They can only be killed by guile or by using different weapons like a spear or a bow. Individually most enemies are easy enough to figure out but when paired with the unforgiving peril of resource shortages hey become deadly. The most dangerous monsters you encounter can be cleared from afar with a bow, but arrows are made by collecting materials and crafting, so it's essential to have a constant income of new materials or you'll end up falling behind.

In this world you must eat and drink and stay warm
. Collecting stuff takes up a lot of your time and demands extreme patience. You plod through familiar rooms picking up loot just as you have done dozens of times before. Storing stuff is strategically essential. Generally you will die frantically seeking out food or warmth with your health seeping away as you encounter mobs who guard a life-saving potato, water hole or heating brazier. You'll end developing strategies based on sacrificing lives in the pursuit of stores which might benefit later generations of yourself. Collecting means repetition and time consuming busywork demanding that you pay your dues in terms of picking up shards and digging up turnips and looting dead bodies. This tedium is not a design flaw, but the entire point. The designers know you will die often. They want death to sting.

If you die in an inconvenient place your new life might be spent doing 90 percent of the things you did in your previous one and getting back to that spot to recover what you've lost, in the hope that you’ll spend 10% of you lifespan pushing into unexplored territory. There are times when this is a generous calculation when your new life achieves less than your old life and when your new corpse offers fewer resources than your old one. Sometimes it's hard to notice any improvement at all between deaths and that might feel like the harder part of the game: those valleys where you're unable to advance at all. Or even you feel like you're getting weaker. You might die in places that are kinda similar, and maybe over certain same monster/s or traps, but that procedural design makes it like a game harder to master, because you won't die at the exact same place after crossing the same rooms.

Below offers no tutorial or guidance about its arcane systems. Even after hours of play there are fundamental pillars of design that you can’t fully understand. The system of discoverable keys and marbles and light domes and shards and stone monuments is an unfolding mystery the players should discover by themselves (or checking online), which makes it interesting for the idea of exploration of the unknown, but harder for the player point of view. If it wasn’t for all the grinding the combat would have been much more engaging. Melee combat with a sword or spear is fair, methodical and enjoyable once you learn how the diverse and memorable collection of enemies behave. The bow can be fiddly and timely to line up its shots. There’s a gradual progression in monster difficulty that introduces new attack patterns and new dangers right when you feel ready to face them. The blade-wielding mummies in the Necropolis have quick and powerful attacks but require a lot of downtime in between attacks. Giant crab monsters in the ice area are very good at blocking your normal attacks so you have to wait for them to wind up a strike of their own and take advantage of the window of vulnerability...

There are also a couple challenging boss fights but it’s just the same super enemy repeated multiple times. This feels like a missed opportunity and leaves a craving for greater variety to test your skills against. Given how tightly tuned the combat feels and how creative Below gets with its normal enemies it’s quite a disappointment to get to a new boss arena and discover it’s going to be just the same as the last one. There are a couple event fights like battling a huge wave of ghouls while waiting for an elevator to activate and these events are the best effort to replace a boss fight the game puts forward. This isn't a game about big fights, it's more about surviving in those hard environments.

The goal in Below is to plumb as far into its depths as possible and to reach new levels. But even this simple target is disturbed by devious design decisions. You will grow to respect the cruelness around Below. It manipulates you but not in the usual way of game design. It does not seem to be concerned about your happiness or your expectations. If anything it wants you to suffer and almost demands that you spend hours in a stew of boredom and outrage. Play or don’t play the developers don’t care but they do challenge you to keep coming back after each death to chance another go. And this is the kind of quest a lot of players will love... and others will avoid. Who'd you be?

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