Below is a mesmerizing game. It is the sort where you go in with nothing and come away with what you take away from what you observe and do. In its purest mode, it is punishing and brutal. It makes you earn its ending, one that leaves you questioning everything you have done and perhaps wondering about the meaning of it all. It is dark, gritty, and intense. Yet now, with Explore mode, it is easier to appreciate the atmosphere and beauty of it all.
Below is a haunting game. The soundtrack is moving and, while minimalistic, it forces you to appreciate everything around you. The details of light and shadows in each area. There’s the way the enemies move about before they sense you, hidden in the darkness. It combines with the Jim Guthrie soundtrack to create a sense of tension and unease. You know things are out there. You know there is a reason you are on this island filled with enemies, littered with mysterious artifacts and landmarks, and surrounded by broken boats. You just don’t know why. With the Explore mode, you get the chance to know why, and that’s a treat.
The biggest things to appreciate are the ones that take away moments where Below might feel cheap. While there is no text and the UI is hidden unless you need it, it is designed to draw you in. While I appreciate the danger that comes from its rawest form, going through the Below Explore mode let me go ahead and play around. I could spend more time looking around the dungeons’ rooms. When I found a beach, I could leisurely swim around and appreciate the story all the shipwrecks were “telling” me. Not having to worry about my avatar’s material needs was huge, while having to keep my health up after enemy assaults or traps would still lend a sense of needing to prepare and take care.
It’s more like the Below Explore mode isn’t handing everything to you. It is sufficiently easier and lets you take more time to look around. You are allowed to take more risks, because the campfires you reach are all there for you and let you resume at “safe enough” spaces. You don’t feel like you’re being penalized for dying. It was never a devastating, I can’t recover from this sort of setback when you’d die, but the new mode’s option makes it easier to get back to where you were and keep moving forward.
I will say that, in one way, the Below Explore mode does take away a bit from the game. I went through it both ways, though I was only able to beat it on Explore because. With the places its “story” goes, I feel like the fact that you very likely would lose your life multiple times and go through multiple avatars lends additional weight to the experience and perhaps adds a little more intrigue and sense of purpose to the person who is heading down into the depths. It makes it all feel more real and final in a way that the Explore mode doesn’t.
Perhaps the best way to put it is that the Below Explore mode lets you get where you need to go with a little less mental anguish and a little more opportunities to take your time. While you definitely will build up necessary survival skills, you’ll also feel like you don’t have to be the absolute best at roguelikes or action games to find your way into the island’s depths. You’ll still be able to learn and grow, but be able to also better take things in and appreciate the design directions here.
Below is available for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.