Below is one of those games that can feel like it's actively trying to turn you off from playing it. It's elusive, unforgiving, dark in every sense of the word, and places the sanctity of its own creative intent over any concerns for player accessibility. At least, that's the game we were given when Caypbara's roguelike action-adventure launched on PC in 2018.
A maddening descent into a procedurally generated complex of twisting, critter-filled caverns, players not only had to balance their desire to continue onwards with the threat of losing all of their loot as Below's many dangers escalated, but deal with constantly draining hunger and thirst meters that were just as deadly. What's more, death could arrive instantaneously and with little warning, with not even a heldover checkpoint to encourage a second run. It was all a bit too much, frankly, working against Below's favour and alienating even those who appreciated the game's rich atmosphere, and genuinely wanted to uncover more of its secrets.
Thankfully, Capybara Games heard the feedback loud and clear, and has now introduced a new "Explore Mode" to coincide with Below's release on PS4 (opens in new tab) this week. The new way to play eases the punitive mechanics of the original experience (still available as "Survival Mode" for those who prefer the challenge), and places an emphasis on Below's strengths as an absorbing, ambient adventure into the unknown.
Make no mistake: this indie underdog is still the tough and puzzling experience it always was, relentlessly stubborn in its refusal to handhold, but Explore Mode feels – to me at least – the game that Below should have been at launch, striking a much healthier balance between challenge and payoff.
Scratching beneath the surface
"When we launched Below a year ago, feedback proved to us that many players were intrigued, and enamored of the game’s mysterious underworld, unique art style & dreamy atmosphere," explained creative director Kris Piotrowski in a recent post on the PlayStation Blog, "but these players’ desire to delve into Below required surmounting a difficulty that made the journey seem impossible."
"While some fans loved the punishing challenge, others desperately wanted to be able to spend more time simply bathing in the dripping darkness of Below’s environments. The Explore Update was created exactly for these players, designed for everyone to enjoy."
Explore Mode thus does away with Below's survival mechanics and instant fatalities, and in their place introduces the ability to freely return to previously unlocked checkpoints, easing the burden of death runs to recover loot after falling in combat. It's amazing how these small, simple tweaks can perform wonders not just for the game's entertainment value, but its identity politics, in which Below's shining qualities are distilled and elucidated, no longer muddied by its polarising patronage to the roguelike genre.
No longer gripped by fear and frustration over what lies beyond every next room, I'm not just able to take my time with Below, but enjoy my time in it too. The reasons that originally compelled me to play were never borne out of a desire to overcome its old school notions of difficulty, but to uncover its many nooks and crannies, soaking up that delectably macabre atmosphere, and trying to make sense of its wordless narrative.
There is precedent for this kind of turnaround, too. Around the time Below originally launched, Frictional Games' survival horror gem SOMA (opens in new tab) celebrated its Xbox One launch with the introduction of a "Safe Mode" (opens in new tab), removing the threat of death entirely and allowing players to explore its murky depths without the worry of "being eaten by monsters".
In a similar fashion, Safe Mode elevated the very act of playing SOMA itself, revealing yet more layers to its strengths as a skin-crawling philosophical thought experiment that didn't need to rely on jump scares to keep the player on edge. And while Below's Explore Mode isn't quite as forgiving (you can still die, after all), it's yet another example of why this kind of option matters, not just as a step forward for accessibility, but because people enjoy playing games in different ways.
It's hard to say whether Below's new update will be enough to win back its lost audience and generate more sustainable interest than its 2018 release was able to. I'd suggest that those who have the most to appreciate from the Explore update are the same people who endured its original release a year and a half ago, and will therefore be able to see just how much of a difference the change has made.
Either way, Capybara should be praised nonetheless for listening to its critics, dropping any sense of pride over creative purity, and making the right calls to help Below become the game it was meant to be. When so many other developers refuse to budge on their difficulty spikes, even when it's detrimental to the success of their own game, it's comforting to know that there are studios out there who understand the value and importance of player empowerment. .
We've started a new series that pits the team against each other with some fiendish gaming tests. Check out Challenge Radar Episode 4 (opens in new tab) here.