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E3 2018: Death is Educational in the Mysterious Depths of Below

After a prolonged absence, highly-anticipated RPG Below from Toronto-based developer Capybara Games is finally coming to the surface. First announced in 2013, the Xbox One exclusive has undergone some serious nips and tucks over the years, re-emerging at E3 2018 as a colorful, confident, and challenging journey through a mysterious network of caverns.

We experienced this beautiful, enigmatic adventure firsthand at a recent hands-on demo. Played from a top-down, isometric perspective, Below begins by dropping players off on the shores of a dark, shadowy island. A nearby campfire beckons, introducing us to the game’s crafting mechanics. Players will have to scavenge for items to create life-granting stews and soups. Grabbing a few nearby fish and a bottle of water, we concocted a hearty (if unseasoned) stew and were on our way.

We needed every sip of that fishy mess, because Below is a tough game. With little formal direction, the player will have to discover the rules of Below’s alluring world through exploration and repetition.

After climbing a sheer cliff face, we roamed through the tall grass of a stunning field, finding a trusty lantern as a lightning storm flashed around us. Running in beautiful 4K on Xbox One X, Below’s haunting, understated visuals set a somber mood. After testing out our sword by slicing through blades of grass, we gathered our wits, entered an ominous cave, and made our way down into the bowels of the island.

In short order we ran into a room filled with hostile, red globs. We dispatched several using simple sword and shield attacks, but were quickly overwhelmed. After respawning at the beach, we made our way back only to find that the level layout had changed.

That’s because Below is, at its heart, a roguelike experience. Most areas in Below are procedurally generated, leading to a new experience each time you play. Not everything in the world changes, however; progressing will require learning to decode the game’s unique visual vocabulary. Find a secret entrance to a new portion of the island? While the layout of the combat-driven areas surrounding it will change, you’ll eventually learn where this entrance generally resides each time you play. Over time, you’ll slowly piece together the structure and flow of Below’s strange world.

One thing we learned? Crystals left by downed enemies can be used to transform campfires into fast-travel points. The next time we died, we were able to warp from the beach fire directly to a handy cavern checkpoint.

Below’s world is littered with more unexplained curiosities: rune-covered obelisks, hidden traps, wearable masks granting unknown abilities. Below purposefully obfuscates the relationship between the player and these objects. There’s no hand-holding here. If you want to uncover Below’s game’s secrets, you’ll need to do it the hard way.

And having only reached the second floor of the caverns in our 30-minute playthrough, we’re dying (no pun intended) to try again. Boasting a secretive world and unique, foreboding art style, this roguelike game of survival and discovery has all the trappings of another must-play indie. We’re excited to learn more once the game finally comes up for air on Xbox One later this year.