Below is a link between Dark Souls and Zelda

Below makes you feel small. Wonderfully, wonderfully small. Capybara Games' new adventure, a lush marriage of Dark Souls and the original Legend of Zelda, is a game of contrasts, encroaching dark and tiny lights with a wee character in a big, echoing world. "The idea of scale was the first thing we landed on. Ever since 1080p monitors came out I've had this dream of taking advantage of that technology in a different way," explained Kris Piotrowski, Below's creative director. "You've got this view you've never seen before, a character on a scale you've never seen before, and it gives the world a feeling of vastness and mystery."

The muted, thick colors and heavy rain surrounding the Wanderer, Below's fragile star, in the game's beach side opening are as oppressive as they are beautiful. Wanderer is tiny on the beach and rocky path leading up into the hills in the background, taking up almost no screen real estate and moving slowly. Even holding the run button, he only moves at a trot. Unsheathing your sword and shield takes a good beat as well, leaving you vulnerable. Climbing up a trail toward the monolithic cave first seen in Below's E3 2013 debut is immediately tense and alluring.

Those feelings of vastness and mystery sweep you up so much that you're not expecting it the first time spikes shoot out of a grey splotch of cave-floor, cutting your life short. When you start again as a brand new Wanderer, a little wiser and a little more ready with a sword, that's when this chilly game warms up, inviting you into its artful, challenging exploration one dark cave at a time.

Below doesn't make it abundantly clear what you're supposed to be doing, much like Piotrowski's last collaboration with musician Jim Guthrie, Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP. "Big ass triple-A games decided to really hold people's hands," laments Piotrowski. "You press a button and it tells you exactly where to go. It takes you right out of it. People want something they can discover." Like the previously mentioned Dark Souls, which Piotrowski cites as an inspiration in conversation and with nods in gameplay, Below emphasizes exploration over explanation. "It's really unforgiving," he said, right as I was gutted by a hidden, swinging blade.

Here's how you proceed: you walk into the cave and explore. That's it. Scenes like the beachside beginning and others like the discovery of a desiccated shipwreck surrounded by ghostly dogs are set in stone, designed set pieces for you to find. Each time you die, though, the paths and dank caves between those set pieces are randomly shuffled. Death puts you right back on that beach, and when you head back in, there's no direct path back to the last Wanderer's corpse and his items to retrieve.

The version on hand at PAX East, which Capy says isn't quite a demo but isn't complete either, takes a little mercy on new players. Dying sends you back to a campfire inside the cave mouth that won't be in the final game. There are always three items waiting for you, a potion (renews health and stops bleeding), a torch (lights up the cavern), and grass (used for crafting). These are essential, but don't guarantee survival. Smokey red enemies like mean little rocks dispatch Wanderer as quickly as traps like the aforementioned floor spikes, and you have to be quick with your sword, equipped on the right trigger, and the quick dodge used by tapping the run button. If you don't collect the glowing crystals left behind by enemies, they'll reform and start snacking on you again.

I didn't make much progress during my hour with Below. Small discoveries like a bow and arrow or spear, extra weapons you can carry on your back, changed up the pace of play but proved tricky to use as effectively as the sword. Big discoveries just led to more questions. When I found what looked like a crystal ball near a stone altar, I asked what it did. "Oh, it's a thing," said Jim Guthrie. "Yeah, it's a thing," conspired Piotrowski. I died before I found the crystal ball's place in Below's shifting labyrinth; I died before learned how to craft arrows; I died before I found out what mushrooms do. Even after playing it, Below still holds some brutal mysteries, which will be revealed when it eventually explores Steam and Xbox One.
[Images: Capybara Games]
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Below (PAX East)

This article was originally published on Joystiq.