Notes from the Underground: Hands-on with Capybara Games’ Below

“Explore, Survive, Discover” is the tagline on Capybara Games’ upcoming “Below,” and it’s well chosen.

My character, known only as a “wanderer” lands on a deserted-looking island. He (?) is tiny, little more than a thumbnail on my 32″ display. I feel insignificant next to the cliffs that tower above me, standing on the sand, in the rain. There’s no text on screen, no tips or arrows or other hand-holding. I start walking.

After some exploration and climbing, I find my wanderer standing before a very tall, very narrow and foreboding entrance into the rock. I enter, stirring up a cloud of bats, then descend a very long staircase. My visibility is oppressively limited as I enter each new room in the depths. The gloom seems alive as it almost begrudgingly makes way for my wanderer.

So what, exactly, is “Below?” “We’re saying it’s inspired by roguelikes, because it’s not a pure roguelke,” Capy President Nathan Vella told us last weekend at PAX East. “The key things we’re taking are procedurally generated dungeons, permanent death, and brutal-but-fair combat… you’re always one hit away from dying.”

This lesson is learned quickly as I’m impaled immediately by a spike trap.

If you die – when you die, rather – another wanderer lands on the beach to re-embark on the journey. If a previous wanderer had discovered a special item or weapon, those items may be in his final resting place, awaiting rediscovery by your new wanderer.

As I re-enter the depths, I notice some rather excellent music kicking in for the first time. “I think we’re trying to figure out the balance,” composer Jim Guthrie answered when asked about the music’s sudden appearance. “The sounds the caves make are a song all to themselves. If we want to make the player feel a bit freaked out or get their heart racing, it’s not how much music, but when you place it that is important. You can’t have exciting ‘up’ times if you don’t have ‘down’ times.”

I explore further, slashing small enemies with RT and blocking blows with LT. When stabbing from behind my shield, my tiny wanderer reminds of Link from the original “The Legend of Zelda,” something others have noted as well.

Suddenly, I exit the claustrophobic caverns onto on a beach populated by aggressive feral canines and a massive shipwreck. I make a dash for the vessel, on board which I discover healing potions, a bow, and some arrows. I exit, slay the wild dogs with my new weapon, and claim their meat for food. I also seize the spent arrows, which can be reused. I suspect there won’t be many of them around.

I slay several beasts, both animal and… otherworldly, before being pierced by an arrow trap. If I was fast enough, I could stem the bleeding with a healing potion. But I’m not, and so ends that wanderer’s adventure.

The next wanderer is hit by a similar trap, but now I know what to do – I quickly pull a medicine vial from my inventory, stop the bleeding, and dodge past the trap. Below is about living, learning, and hopefully not dying next time.

“The game is about exploration,” Vella says. “But to explore, you need to survive. One life you may go one area, another life make take you elsewhere, depending on how you go.”

I’m not sure what the ultimate destination was for my wanderer, only that, after an hour of play, I was eager to continue exploring the depths.

Capy isn’t saying exactly when “Below” will appear on Xbox One, but we’ll definitely let you know when we learn more.