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PAX East 2014: Below was the show's most charming game

Below Screenshot - Cave

Below may be the 45th indie roguelike to be announced in the last year or so, but after playing it, it’s the one I’m the most excited to play. Developed by Capybara Games, the studio behind Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, Below is shaping up to be the Xbox One’s Zelda -- a true adventure in the spirit of classic games, but with the modern design and teeth we should expect from a Xbox One indie game.

The demo I played at PAX East started on a beach, much like my favorite Zelda, Link’s Awakening . After a slow climb up a rock wall and a little bit of exploration I made my way into a dark dungeon area. Curious about a panel on the floor, I stepped onto it and was immediately impaled by spikes. Game over.

Thankfully I didn’t end up back on the beach and I didn’t have to make the climb again. A developer on hand explained that Below is a blend of crafted areas and randomly generated dungeons. Rather than making you walk up the beach and climb again and again, you simply restart within the dungeon. Still, like most roguelikes, Below does start you from there when you die. There are harsh penalties for death, but it isn’t all bad news.

Below

The world is randomly generated, but the changes you make in your past lives affect each current attempt. For example, you may open up a shortcut, or find your corpse with all your old gear. Sometimes you may change something that will make your future lives harder. The game even uses that old roguelike mechanic of hiding a potion’s effect until you use it. A potion may heal you, but it could also be poison - them’s the breaks.

Your hero is a stout, backpacked adventurer with a sword and shield. He’s beautifully animated, and it’s his movements that really give the game that evocative Zelda feel. Below may be built from a highly systemic, mechanics-driven genre, but it also gets the little details and atmosphere right, and that’s what makes it so intriguing.

While the areas are randomly generated, the design is very natural. You don’t see the sort of boxed-out chunks that most games use. Even the random dungeons look as good as the hand-crafted bits. That goes doubly for dark environments, where your torch projects realistic light and shadows that give the game an extra bit of atmosphere.

Below

Combat, from what I saw of the demo, was simple and intuitive, based on satisfying attack and block mechanics. Keep your shield up, plan your strikes based on the enemy’s tells, and you’ll have success. Make the wrong move and you may find yourself bleeding out, searching your inventory for a much needed health potion before it’s too late. A crafting system ensures that thorough exploration will reward players in these sorts of scenarios.

The Xbox One may be lacking in indie exclusives, but Below is looking to be a hell of a score. The game is also coming to Steam, but PS4 gamers will have to wait and see if there’s ever an announcement down the line. It’s too bad, because Below seems like the perfect Vita game.

Platform exclusivity or not, Below is shaping up to be something special. The music, art, animation, and harsh-but-fair mechanics form a cohesive whole that officially locked the game into my list of most-anticipated games of 2014.

Enjoy random thoughts about the latest games, the Sega Saturn, or the occasional movie review? Follow me @JoeDonuts!

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Joe Donato Video games became an amazing, artful, interactive story-driven medium for me right around when I played Panzer Dragoon Saga on Sega Saturn. Ever since then, I've wanted to be a part of this industry. Somewhere along the line I, possibly foolishly, decided I'd rather write about them than actually make them. So here I am.
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