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.
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.
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]