The term “Dark Souls-like” has lost a lot of its original meaning; now being applied to nearly any game that’s somewhat challenging and includes a death/recovery mechanic. Using that term to describe a game is usually part of its marketing campaign, hoping to draw in a percentage of the Dark Souls crowd with the promise of a similar experience. Such is how I first came to know about Below, the latest title from Capybara Games, which promised a fresh take on the genre. Whilst it does include many of the trappings of the games that inspired it Below’s added mechanics do nothing to improve the experience, instead turning it into a slower, less rewarding experience that simply bored me. There might be something buried deeper within the game that might interest me but I simply didn’t find enough to keep me interested past the first couple hours.
Below is a tale of a string of adventurers who venture to an island and set about exploring what lies below its surface. There is only ever one of them and should one die another will arrive to take their place. As I understand it there’s more to the story, potentially locked behind the game’s main collectibles or maybe in other areas I didn’t explore but I simply didn’t have the patience to find out. That could partly be due to the game’s irritatingly long opening cutscene which adds nothing to the story and only serves to make you think the game is stuck trying to load.
The game’s visuals are simple, utilising the low-poly aesthetic that has proven popular over the last couple years. It’s also very dark 90% of the time with much of the environment hidden from view. This is then cast in stark relief when there’s any kind of lightsource, illuminating a world that’s brimming with colour and detail. Whilst the decision to hide much of the environment away from you is purely a mechanical one (which is core to the game) it is a bit of a shame that the game’s beauty is hidden from you. That being said when the game does showcase itself to you through the use of generous particle and lighting effects the results are quite stunning.
At its heart Below is a roguelike, throwing you into procedurally generated environments that you reveal as you wander through them. Everything is dark, something which you can alleviate through the use of torches or your lantern, the latter of which consumes gems that enemies drop. In addition to the standard health gauge you also have 3 others: food, water and heat. The first two deplete slowly over time, needing to be replenished by finding a water source or finding food respectively. The last only comes into play in certain sections and will deplete quickly, needing to be refilled by sitting next to a fire. There’s also a crafting system, enabling you to fashion numerous helpful items including elixirs that will give you certain benefits for a short time. All in all whilst Below is a simple game on the surface there’s certainly a good depth to the mechanics. The main problem is that they’re just not particularly enjoyable.
Combat is a pretty straightforward affair as you’re equipped with a sword and shield that function as you’d expect. Most enemies in the beginning simply run at you and die in a single hit but they quickly evolve into more complex enemies with varied movesets. The health system is a little different in that taking damage will turn part of your health red which, if you’re quick enough, can be bandaged up. However to recover health that’s been completely lost you’ll need to find food. It’s definitely on the challenging side but it didn’t feel as punishing as the Souls games were when I first started playing them. Combat isn’t what bored me about Below though, it was the exploration and survival mechanics.
Exploring the levels is meant to be part of the challenge, and that I’m on board with, however having to go back through them to find level keys or other things in order to progress is a real chore. This is made worse by the fact that when you die the level gets regenerated again, meaning you have to not only fight your way back to your body at a disadvantage, the path to get there won’t be the same. This made death more of a chore than I felt it needed to be, even when I had the closest bonfire available for me to travel to. I didn’t even die that many times during my time with Below either, maybe 2 or 3, but even that was enough for me to want to stop playing.
The survival mechanics only exacerbate that issue, forcing you to dedicate even more time to keeping those meters filled. The water one is usually easy enough, either you just need to remember where a pool was or keep plodding along and you’ll eventually find one, but the food is a different story. It seemed early on in the game I’d get enough to keep me going, not enough for a large stockpile but sufficient to ensure I wasn’t constantly in peril, but later on that petered out completely. Even hunting everything in sight didn’t net me enough food to stop me from starving, clocking up another death because I simply couldn’t find enough food. Sure, this could be RNGesus screwing me over just that once, but that’s exactly the reason I usually steer clear of Roguelikes. Reading through other reviews it seems I’m not alone in feeling this way either, so hopefully the developers address it (maybe even make a mode that has it removed and blocks your achievements or something).
Below is a mechanically deep and well crafted game that struggles to capture your attention. The environments are truly beautiful, something which is unfortunately only revealed to you in fits and starts when you’re able to use a precious light source to see them. Combat is simple but challenging enough to be rewarding which is a hard balance to strike. Unfortunately the real let down of the game is in the exploration and survival mechanics that do little more than add tedium to the game. This is why I put it down after just 2 hours of game time, I simply couldn’t drive myself on with it any longer. Perhaps there’s something beyond level 4 that might’ve enticed me to stay but I’ll never know.
Below is available on PC and Xbox One right now for $22.49. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours playtime and 50% of the achievements unlocked.
I’m something of a sucker for pixel art games. It’s probably the nostalgia factor that does it for me, harking back to a time when it was my brother and I eagerly hammering away at the latest game we’d got usually after an intense begging and pleading session with our parents. At the same time I think the medium has evolved past what it was back then as it used to be the only way in which you could do graphics for games. Today it’s more a tool of choice as decent level graphics is well within the reach of even the smallest independent studios. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is yet another independent release that has chosen the pixel art route for their point and click action adventure, one that I had heard much about but only got around to playing last weekend.
You are only known as The Scythian, a stranger to the lands who’s been sent to accomplish a woeful errand. What that errand is and your motivation for doing so is left up to the imagination and the first session of Sword and Sworcery instead focuses on teaching you the basics of the game and setting up the few NPCs you’ll meet along the way. They’re rather unimaginatively named Girl (a Girl), Logfella (a guy who cuts logs) and Dogfella (a dog). Your first mission sees you summit the Mingi Taw (a local mountain) and retrieve a book known as the Megatome, a powerful spell book. From there you continue on your woeful errand following the will of the almighty cursor god.
The artwork of Sword and Sworcery is a curious blend of good old fashioned pixel art highlighted with more modern artistic effects. The modern aspects fit in well though being used mostly as emphasis in order to portray something in a certain way. Additionally any UI elements including things like the overlays and title screens are done in a non-pixel art way giving the seemingly retro game a modern feel when played. I’m no pixel art purist so the blending of the new and old styles of computer art work well and don’t seem to be at odds with each other like I thought they would be at first glance.
Much like Botanicula before it Sword and Sworcery has put a lot of effort into the music and foley that backs the core game play. The starting scenes serve as a kind of audio test to make sure that your sound system is working correctly as whilst none of the puzzles really require sound you’re missing out if you don’t have it on. For me though it was the music more than the foley this time around that did it for me as the music felt original whilst the foley felt like it might have come from a stock sounds library. Still it’s not like they’re terrible, just that the music was the standout of the two audio aspects of the game.
The core of Sword and Sworcery is a good old fashioned point and click adventure with a heavy aspect on exploration. Sword and Sworcery actively encourages you to click around the screen to figure things out and after a while also has you swiping around the place to see if things will react. As a seasoned gamer I find it somewhat interesting that players have to be told to explore, it feels like second nature especially to someone who grew up on such titles, but I can see how this game would be frustrating to someone who had never encountered the genre before. This was perhaps more likely for Sword and Sworcery as its initial release was on the iPad, home to the casual gamer who’s usually not terribly familiar with traditional game conventions.
The puzzles are, for the most part, pretty straight forward and can usually be uncovered through clicking and swiping around wildly should the answer not hit you immediately. Unlike its point and click ancestors Sword and Sworcery isn’t a game that relies on you finding all the required items and then rifling through them in order to find which one unlocks the next section, which I was very grateful for. There are definitely more innovative ways to make puzzles rather than throwing out all the pieces randomly and having you attempt to find which piece goes where at what time and Sword and Sworcery does so in a way that’s both fun and challenging, for most of the time at least.
Whilst I was able to get through most of the puzzles without too many dramas there were a couple occasions where I got stuck. Now this wasn’t the usual thing of not completing a certain puzzle (this was the dark moon trigon part if you’re interested) but after breezing through all the puzzles I was then left wondering where to go next. After clicking around everywhere I couldn’t for the life of me figure out where to go and it wasn’t until I randomly clicked on a little ledge by accident did I find how to progress further. I’m fine with hiding puzzles in plain sight but if a player has been stuck on something for more than 10 minutes it usually means the puzzle logic isn’t entirely clear as the developer thinks it is. I’m also willing to admit that I’m just thick and couldn’t see the clues but as far as I could tell it wouldn’t be obvious to most (and judging by the Steam stats on the game I’m one of the very few, 7% of people in fact, to have actually finished the entire game).
Combat is a very simplistic affair, something that’s a trait of adventure games everywhere. If you don’t go stray too far from the predetermined course that the game has plotted for you it’s unlikely that you’ll see combat more than 5 or so times throughout your play through. However when I misinterpreted what one of the NPCs said I was treated to quite a few of the combat encounters as I struggled to get back on course. This wouldn’t have been so bad had the combat encounters not been near identical, serving as just a time waster rather than an actual challenge.
The same can be said for the boss fights as whilst they’re all slightly different they are for the most part the same. You’ll do the same Zelda: Ocarina of Time style tennis match with each trigon until they decide you need to do it again but faster this time. After that its the same series of quick time events (bar 1 which is unique to that boss fight, the only real difference in any of the fights) making sure that you press your shield at the right time whilst swiping away anything that gets close. The whole thing would’ve been made a lot more pleasurable if the game had mentioned that you could press and hold the shield to regen health, something that wasn’t revealed to me until I was out of health replenishing mushrooms and had to start the boss fight on 1 star of health.
I could forgive all these quibbles should the story have been interesting but I just couldn’t get into it. One of the biggest aspects of the game is that it has built in Twitter integration, allowing you to tweet any section of dialog. This means that all lines are less than 140 characters and I felt the dialog suffered because of this. It also didn’t help that it swung wildly between tongue-in-cheek style humor and actual meaty dialog, ostensibly because the humorous parts were meant for Twitter whilst the other sections weren’t. I felt the Tweeting thing was clever at first but later on it became painfully aware that it wasn’t a novel way of integrating social media it was just another way to market the game, one that was paid for by a terrible story.
All together Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery felt like it had equal parts good to bad. The final 15 minutes or so were quite enjoyable, probably the most enjoyable of the game, but it was preceded by several hours of samey combat, puzzles that were not satisfying and a story that felt like it was built as a marketing engine rather than an actual story. I really wanted to like Sword and Sworcery, I really did but the glaring faults (not least of which was the “wait 2 weeks to get the next trigon bullshit”) distracted from it so heavily that I can’t really recommend you go ahead and buy it, unless you’re a die hard point and click fan with a support the indies streak.
Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery is available right now on iOS and PC for $5.49 and $7.99 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with around 3.2 hours of total play time and 64% of the achievements unlocked. I also managed to get the #honest achievement with cheating as well, just don’t set your clock back until you finish the game.