Difficulty in games is a complex subject and any sort of attempt at making a conclusive statement is bound to fail. The range of easy to challenging to frustrating is linked to many factors, from game mechanics to art style and to the dexterity of the player. Some genres are inherently more approachable than others. In the end, though, fun and satisfaction and a sense of time well spent must figure into the equation. By nearly any metric, Below is a difficult and often frustratingly obtuse game, and its proportion of reward to effort is way out of balance.
In development for a number of years, Below is a survival/roguelike game that, from the lengthy and unskippable cinematic, challenges the player not just to enjoy it, but to engage with it. Like many games in its genre, Below eschews any sort of tutorial or meaningful context, instead tossing the tiny player character onto a nearly featureless beach and letting them discover the path forward.
Below’s art style is at the same time lovely and distinguishing feature and equally a source of one of the game’s major frustrations. The main character is very small and the landscape and below-ground levels and not only very dark, but shrouded by fog that must be cleared by progressing. Unfortunately, that limited field of view and clarity of vision also hides all manner of monsters, traps and insta-death dealing elements that are merely inconvenient early on but become gradually more dire later in the game.
Below’s survival and crafting elements are familiar. Mechanics such as health and hunger, and weapons and bonfires must be addressed though gathering items from the environment and looting fallen enemies. Losing everything upon death — including the precious lantern — adds another layer of tension to the experience and the fact that levels are randomly generated assures the player will never become comfortable with the location of items and enemies. There are some quality of life concessions in the game, such as fast-travel bonfires, but even these are compromised by considerations of cost or extended usefulness.
I recently praised Rockstar for implementing a very specific vision in Red Dead Redemption 2, despite some blowback over aspects of the game’s pacing and “lack of fun,” so it would be hypocritical of me not to acknowledge that as much as I might not connect with Below, there are satisfactions and rewards to be found from the game and it’s clear that developer Capy Games had a blueprint and the moxie to implement it. Below has been compared to the Souls games but they are really nothing alike, save a general perception of difficulty. From Software’s games are based on mechanics of increasing skill gleaned from repetition and an unchanging, crafted levels and player death is almost entirely the result of impatience, inattention, or both. In contrast, Below is essentially a collection of game mechanics that individually and collectively exist to stymie your continued progress through its world.
But even if Below was “easier,” it would not be entirely successful. Its art style is unique but darkly opaque and as action/survival/roguelikes go, it doesn’t add much new to the genre. With wildly erratic difficulty spikes, the necessity for uninspired grinding and the inevitable and frequent loss of progress, Below is a niche game for a specific target audience that has enormous patience and determination.