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.
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.
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.
The Great Perhaps Review — Perhaps Not
Warning: The article contains discussion on the subject of suicide. If you or someone you love is struggling, The International Association for Suicide Prevention provides contact information for help across the world.
One common piece of advice for budding comedians is to never ‘punch down’. The target of a joke should be someone of a higher status or privilege than the joke teller, rather than a person within a marginalised group, such as the poor, the disabled, or the mentally ill. While this is not a hard and fast rule to comedy success, with shows like South Park using shocking moments to illuminate larger problems within society, without a deft hand, punching down comes across as cruel or offensive. The Great Perhaps, the first title by developer Caligari Games, makes an off-colour joke about suicide in the first five minutes of the game, setting a confused tone for the rest of its three-hour playtime. While this puzzle platformer shows some potential with solid puzzle design and great art direction, its terrible writing taints the entire experience.
The initial foot-in-the-mouth moment happens in the game’s animated prologue. Kosmos is an astronaut in a space station orbiting the earth. During a typical day, his communications with Earth are suddenly cut off, and he sees black smoke spreading across the globe. The station automatically puts him into cryogenic sleep, with instructions to wake him when returning to the surface is safe. Upon awakening, he discovers that over 100 years have passed. Kosmos is in despair, realising that everyone he ever knew or loved is dead, including his wife and children. He asks the ship’s A.I., L9, to vent all the oxygen in the ship, ending his life. She refuses, saying that the task is illogical. He asks again. She tells him to ‘nut up’ and to go explore the Earth. Kosmos reacts in astonishment, not at her cruel words, but at the fact she has developed a sense of humour. Magically cured of his suicidal ideation by her sassy insults, the pair decide to go explore the Earth and see if anyone survived the apocalypse.
Those whose lives have not been touched by suicide may find difficulty understanding why this moment is so offensive. This ‘nut up’ attitude stems from this belief that those suffering are not trying hard enough to get better—that one can just think themselves happy. Men especially suffer due to social pressure on them to not express their feelings, resulting in a suicide rate three times higher than women. Telling a suicidal person to ‘nut up’ would make them more likely to go through with their plans, not laugh. Real treatment takes a lot of hard work with support from both loved ones and mental health professionals.
This monumental lack of understanding permeates the game, although thankfully not as egregiously as the initial example. The flat intonation of Kosmos’s narration initially seems inspired, a man who has stepped back from the precipice of self harm but is still deeply troubled. However, the content of the writing actually shows that he is really cured, despite the monotony of his voice. About half an hour into the journey, he and L9 encounter a man about to jump off a roof, upset that no one likes his writing. He invites Kosmos to jump with him, but Kosmos proclaims he has ‘better things to do’. A callous attitude for a man who, within the last day or so, was in the same position. He manages to help the man by showing that his book will be successful in the future, handily sidestepping any real understanding of how to defuse such a situation. One does not need to be an expert on mental illness to write about the subject, but a modicum of research, understanding, or respect would have gone a long way. The Great Perhaps seems uncertain if it wants to be mysterious or funny. One moment, Kosmos will be lamenting the downfall of humanity; the next, he is riding an ostrich. L9 switches between making jokes and acting like a cold machine. The game is disjointed and lacks the emotional weight to support the story it is trying to tell.
The gameplay of The Great Perhaps fares better than the writing. A two-dimensional sidescroller with light puzzling, akin to Inside or Limbo, the game’s unique hook is the lantern Kosmos finds that lets him briefly travel back in time. The lantern button can be pressed for a glimpse of the past world, then held down to travel into the past for 20 seconds. For the most part, this mechanic works well, using the lantern to get around locked doors, bring objects between the past and the present, travel down a metro tunnel without getting hit by a train, or eaten by mutant rats. However, in some instances, the mechanic can be fiddly. The transition between worlds is fairly slow, so for sections where one has to swap to avoid a danger, the sluggish transition is frustrating. L9 will warn the player of a danger, but she usually warns too late for the player to perform the switch and save themselves. If this shifting function was on a toggle, rather than button press to turn the lantern on then press and hold down the button again to switch worlds, a lot of frustration could be mitigated. The time in the past would also benefit from being a bit longer. Throughout the campaign, several pipe dream-type puzzles appear in the past world, with the player needing to rotate tiles to form a continuous line from point A to point B. Getting kicked out of the puzzle every 20 seconds because of the time change was annoying.
Kosmos has some finicky movement, which is not a problem during the standard object puzzles, but is an issue in the handful of chase sequences dotted through the game. One section is set in a tight apartment building that requires him to push a cart, climb on it, jump to a ladder, jump across the gap, throw rocks to knock down the next ladder, scramble up, and run up two sets of stairs before reaching freedom. An already tricky sequence is made worse by Kosmos constantly getting stuck on objects. The enemy is close behind him for the whole sequence, so the sequence has little room for error. A bit more space between Kosmos and the monster would allow for collision-based delays.
Along with an autosave, The Great Perhaps has a chapter-based system as well. This system can be helpful if the player finds themselves in a soft-lock situation, which happened once during the review playthrough. In one section of the game, Kosmos needs to prevent a bank robbery in the past. A vital object—a large stick of dynamite—managed to phase through the floor and out of existence, making progress impossible. The autosave occurred after the dynamite escaped the confines of the world, so the only option was to load from a chapter. Thankfully, this chapter system was in place, otherwise the whole game would have needed to be started over. Perhaps a ‘reset screen’ option in the pause menu could be a helpful addition to prevent this problem in the future.
The world of The Great Perhaps has a pretty, cartoon aesthetic, with the transition between the past and the present showing a stark difference in how the place has aged. Lots of menacing creatures have emerged since the fall of mankind, with two-headed rats, giant mole-like beasts, an enormous octopus, and a creepy shadowy humanoid all doing their best to bring Kosmos down. Music is similarly well crafted, with a particular highlight being the escape sequence in a collapsing underground city. Kosmos has to assemble a giant robot to escape, and with each piece he completes, the music increases in tempo and adds more instruments to the mix. On the planet’s surface, the music invokes a sad, lonely atmosphere, trying to insert the emotion this game sorely needs.
So much potential is wasted in The Great Perhaps. Puzzle design is solid throughout, but hampered with finicky controls. Art direction is outstanding, but the story that the game is trying to support flounders between ‘funny’ and serious, and is full of clichés. Offensive content notwithstanding, The Great Perhaps is a very run-of-the-mill time travel story delivered in a monotonous tone. Many adjectives could be used to describe this game, but ‘Great’ is certainly not among them.
Reviewed on PC. Also available on Linux and macOS.
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