I love the feeling I get when exploring a new level of Below's gloomy, foreboding dungeon for the first time. From the enemies to the environment art to the sound design, everything falls into place perfectly to create a spooky atmosphere of unveiling the unknown, never quite knowing what might lie down the next flight of stairs. Then I step on a cheap instakill spike trap, have to start over without my stuff, and likely need to spend the next 30 minutes farming lantern fuel and bat meat so I can take another crack at it. Talk about killing the mood.

Almost all of my biggest frustrations with Below come back to it not seeming able to decide if it wants to be a moody, deliberate dungeon crawler with satisfying combat or a punishing survival-action game that never lets you relax. It's at its best when it keeps that first goal in mind, wowing me with cool, subterranean vistas and enticing me with hard-to-find secret rooms full of useful rewards.

If it weren't for all this grinding, I think I would have been much more engaged by the relentlessly punishing difficulty of the lower floors. Melee combat with a sword or spear is fair, methodical, and exciting once you learn how the diverse and memorable collection of enemies behave. I never really got the hang of the bow, which has some fiddly timing to lining up its shots. Thereís a gradual progression in monster difficulty that introduced new attack patterns and new dangers right when I felt ready to face them. And most enemies communicate through their appearance which part of them is dangerous, which is a nice way of giving some clues on how to fight them. Crazy, blade-wielding mummies in the Necropolis have quick and brutally painful attacks, but require a lot of downtime in between coming for your throat. Giant crab monsters in the ice area are very good at blocking your normal attacks, so you have to wait for them to wind up a strike of their own and take advantage of the window of vulnerability. Most of the time I was mixing it up with this cast of boogeymen, I was really enjoying myself.

Melee combat with a sword or spear is fair, methodical, and exciting.

There are also a couple challenging boss fights, but itís just the same super enemy repeated multiple times. This felt like a missed opportunity, and I craved a greater variety of big bads to test my skills against. Especially given how tightly tuned the combat feels and how creative Below gets with its normal enemies, itís quite a letdown to get to a new boss arena and realize itís going to be just the same as the last one. On the bright side, there were a couple cool event battles, like battling a huge wave of ghouls while waiting for an elevator to activate, that served as memorable and momentous combat moments in their own right.

Some grueling gauntlets later on really got my blood pumping, too. The deepest parts of the dungeon have ways of keeping you moving and testing your reflexes. But even though I enjoy getting a little better and a little further each time, knowing I'd have to do so many chores just to earn another shot if I failed diminished that sense of satisfaction next to other, similar games. High stakes are all well and good, but not when the cost of losing is based so heavily on time-consuming activities that arenít fun.

Dude, Where's My Lantern?

There's also the compounding issue of the lantern, which is needed to open many critical doors, can spot traps, and is the only defense against certain enemies. There's only one in the entire world and you drop it if you die, so if you happened to kick the bucket in an area full of shadow monsters who fear no other weapon you face the prospect of a far more difficult trek to get it back. It's such a strange reverse rubber-band mechanic: You weren't good enough to beat this room on your first shot, so now you have to do a version of it that's way harder! Good luck. To add insult to injury, dying a second time without retrieving the lantern makes it very difficult to find again. Mercifully, the minimap will still tell you what floor itís on, but the indicator of which room youíre looking for shifts to where your freshest corpse is lying.

There's only one lantern in the entire world and you drop it if you die.

In the background thereís a story that, on the rare occasions that you can take a breath to absorb it, is really well done. Without using a word of dialogue, it slowly and effectively unveils the nature and secrets of the dungeon. The animations that take you between floors are as eye-catching as they are mood-setting, and entering a new floor that looks nothing like what came before was always a cool moment. And the ending is a dramatic, unexpected twist that almost makes the 30-ish hours of pain of getting there worth it.

The Verdict

I wanted to love Below for its amazing art, stellar sound design with echoing chambers and atmospheric music, and clever, inspired environmental storytelling. But their light isnít bright enough to shine through all the darkness of the hunger, instant death, and corpse run mechanics, which actively get in the way of enjoying the world and the combat. Below simply leans too hard on roguelike and crafting elements, which create an urgent pace and conflict with its more admirable design ideas.

Below is a gorgeous, atmospheric dungeon crawler that is difficult to take in at the pace it deserves because of oppressive survival mechanics.
Score: 7/10