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Below Review — Brutally Confused

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After five long years of development and tantalising teases at various events, indie developer Capybara Games’s highly anticipated isometric roguelike Below is finally in the hands of fans. In many ways, the game lives up to expectations by presenting a thoroughly fascinating and engaging experience, yet one can not help feel those aspects are undermined by a lack of focus on those areas of a game like this that matter most.

The overall theme of Below is mystery: players control an unknown traveller who travels to an island shrouded in mist and, with no further direction or known goal, must journey down into the earth. This simple premise could otherwise easily be ignored or dismissed, yet the game’s grippingly gloomy presentation successfully stokes the player’s curiosity, urging them to continue deeper and deeper if only to discover what lies ahead. This aspect of Below is immediately identifiable as its strength; a simple, painterly art style is often confusingly beautiful for how dark and dead its environments are, and when paired with an equally intimidating (yet fantastic) score, the atmosphere they create alone makes the game well worth the price of admission.


Of course, the game also has a story for those who pay attention. As players create their own narrative by braving new threats and delving ever deeper, the secrets of the island are slowly revealed, satisfyingly drip-feeding the player with enough clues to eventually piece together an overall story that ends up making sense. The story is subtle, but each discovery is refreshing enough to be considered a motivating reward to press on.

This theme of mystery is appropriately extended to the gameplay, which is equally vague yet uniquely compelling as a result. Nothing is explained, and players must learn through experience how everything from combat to simple menu screens work. Often, they must learn the hard way: going into dark, unfamiliar dungeons crawling with monsters is generally not a good idea, but one must learn to properly face them thereafter. While gameplay itself is simple and offers little immediate variety, this makes for an exceptionally rewarding experience, and often results in genuine surprises that are more memorable than any plot twist in a narrative-driven game.

Additionally, underlying this theme is Below’s defining unforgiving difficulty. Though players are motivated by curiosity and the urge to explore, the omnipresent threat of death forces them to stay cautious: one simple mistake could see their familiar traveller unceremoniously crushed or killed, sending the player back to the very start of the game and forcing them to retrace their prior steps. Thankfully, one can discover shortcuts along the way that make the journey back to their corpse somewhat easier, but the penalty is enough to enforce care. This mechanic creates diverse, dynamic gameplay that changes from player to player, and presents an enthralling meta-conflict between caution and curiosity; between carefully traversing dark dungeons and recklessly chasing progress.

Get used to this screen…

Further, elements of survival and crafting only reinforce the necessity of staying alive and provide some generally non-intrusive variety to the game’s otherwise simple gameplay. Enemies and chests drop resources like food and water such that hunger and thirst are not usually of concern, but simply taking a moment to replenish health and craft items at campfires after potentially fatal encounters with monsters is refreshing and rewarding enough, even if it means inevitably braving more of them soon after.

Unfortunately, these mechanics can sometimes feel unfair as they often take a backseat to exploration and general combat. One can easily forget that their hunger can deplete health or that taking damage can cause bleeding, which simply takes the player out of the action and away from exploring and forces them to divide their attention between progress and survival. Likewise, the game’s effective enforcement of caution can also feel outright cheap: it is generally satisfying, but being insta-killed by hidden traps only serves to unfairly and artificially increase difficulty, and makes long treks back from the very beginning frustrating when it should be exciting. Even between so many deserved deaths, a few unfair ones can leave the player demotivated and unwilling to push on — something some players will not be able to easily forgive.

Similarly, in its efforts to remain brutally difficult, the game often neglects its own necessities. Being a dark dungeon crawler, one’s lantern is essential to effectively progress through each lightless room — yet the entire game has only one, and when players die, the lantern stays with their corpse. This mechanic makes each restart a desperate search for that lantern, unnecessarily forcing the player to blindly backtrack many floors while somehow expecting them to remain calm and cautious. This simple oversight effectively undermines the very point of the game, all too often making restarting from the beginning worth quitting the game over.

Good luck.

This imbalance truly holds Below back from being what it wants to be. Despite flawless presentation and such interesting concepts, one cannot help but feel that the game’s literal gameplay needs more work. This is not to say that the game is a wholly unenjoyable experience; fans of roguelikes, RPGs, and survival games will certainly gain something from it, and those who have fallen in love with the fascinating design of games like Dark Souls will appreciate the concept. However, those with less tolerance or experience with those genres might simply find playing Below a chore.

Still, the game is an undeniably refreshing experience and a rather intriguing introduction to roguelikes for newcomers to the genre. Unfortunately, what the game lacks in terms of consistently gratifying gameplay is not wholly made up for by such excellent presentation and solid underlying concepts.

OnlySP Review Score 3 Credit

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Review

American Fugitive Review — A Grand Tale of Theft and Auto

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American Fugitive gameplay screenshot 1

The original Grand Theft Auto rocked the virtual world with its violent gameplay from a birds-eye view perspective back in 1997. Once the series moved to a third-person, 3D perspective with Grand Theft Auto III, few gamers looked back and few developers attempted to replicate the original style. More than 20 years later, Fallen Tree Games has become of those few with American Fugitive.

Players control Will Riley, a man convicted for a crime he did not commit and filled with the desire for revenge. Once he has escaped from prison, Will must find old friends—and meet some new ones—to run errands and discover the person who killed his father.

The game is played from a top-down perspective in a 3D open world. More reminiscent of Chinatown Wars than the original Grand Theft Auto, the camera adds a level of complexity to American Fugitive, as players often will not see what lies beyond the edges of the screen. While a behind-the-character perspective would, at times, not go amiss, players will eventually grow to familiarise themselves with the camera, respecting the callback to classic open world titles.

American Fugitive gameplay screenshot 2

The open world itself is also reminiscent of classic titles, with simplified designs regularly complimented by the detailed art style. The game’s animated, cartoon design scheme is fitting of its fast-paced action gameplay, always managing to keep the player on their toes and keen to discover more. Technically, the game plays almost flawlessly, with no significant performance issues to disrupt the player while they explore the map.

Players can explore the rural open world of Redrock County on foot or in a vehicle. The vehicular gameplay may take some time for players to familiarise themselves with, with some overly slippery mechanics leading to some unfortunate collisions, though fitting to the game’s tone. Thankfully, most environments in the game are destructible, so sliding off the road—if the player follows the road to begin with—does not often lead to disaster.

Despite beginning the game as a seemingly innocent man, Will doubles down on his criminal actions once he escapes from prison. Akin to Grand Theft Auto, the player can hijack cars, kill civilians, and attract the attention of police. Most residential buildings in the game can be robbed by the player, often leading to tense confrontations with the homeowners or police, so players must continue at their own risk.

American Fugitive gameplay screenshot 3

The ‘wanted’ system in the game works similarly to Grand Theft Auto games, with players accumulating up to five stars depending on their behaviour. The stars often accumulate a little too quickly, however, with additional stars regularly added simply for evading police. Oftentimes, the player may possess a full wanted level—complete with large police vans and circling helicopters—within a minute of committing a minor offense. While this over-the-top gameplay design is fitting to the pace of the game, it may lead to frustrations within the main story missions by bringing the player’s progress to a halt.

The missions are also reminiscent of those in Grand Theft Auto, tasking the player with a wide variety of tasks to keep them busy while the story evolves. While many of these missions may seem disconnected to the main narrative structure, they are unique and regularly keep the player entertained, ranging from simple fetch quests and car robberies to full-scale shootouts. The game’s fast-paced gameplay and lack of loading screens also make the poorly-placed checkpoints bearable, especially when the beginning of missions require the player to drive to a certain location.

American Fugitive‘s storyline is simple in design but entertaining enough to keep the player engaged. The game’s ‘cutscenes’ exist in the form of text atop character designs; while some simple voice acting would elevate these scenes with more dramatic tension, they are short enough to maintain the player’s attention and continue the missions at a fast pace. Players will find themselves surprisingly engrossed in the story, wanting to see it through to its full conclusion.

American Fugitive gameplay screenshot 4

Accompanying the fast-paced gameplay and narrative is the game’s music. From slow, explorative themes to fast-paced tracks, American Fugitive‘s original score is reminiscent of some of the best soundtracks across different media—from television’s True Detective to video gaming’s Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Last of Us. Each song accompanies the gameplay nicely, ramping up and down as the player makes the appropriate actions, and, along with the expert sound design, add the auditory sprinkles atop a visual and narrative treat.

American Fugitive, simply put, is fun. Fallen Tree Games has added its own unique twist to a classic gameplay formula, and utilised a simple but engaging narrative and a beautiful original score to maintain the player’s interest until the very end. Despite a few minor flaws in gameplay, the game stands strong against its competition. Players looking for a fast, fun, and mature sandbox game should not miss American Fugitive.

OnlySP Review Score 4 Distinction

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro.

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