'Below' Hands-On: Macabre Yet Beautiful

What is on this island that all these explorers willingly give their lives to find? The answer lies in "Below," an upcoming indie title from Toronto, Canada-based Capybara Games to be released on Xbox One and Steam. Pricing details have not yet been released. 

Players control a solitary explorer who has sailed to a rocky gray island containing an entrance to a sprawling subterranean cave. Armed with only a sword, a shield, a lantern and a single healing potion, the explorer seeks to discover the cave's secrets. And if you die — then you're dead. No restarts, respawns or resurrections allowed.

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But death isn't the end. Each time one character dies, you'll find yourself back at the cave entrance in control of a new explorer. The idea is that, over the course of many lives and many explorers, players will learn about the cave's dangers and, eventually, its hidden secrets.

We checked out the first playable demo of "Below" when it debuted at the PAX East video game conference in Boston, Mass. Our first character's death came about 5 minutes in, when we foolishly stepped on a suspicious pile of stones that turned out to be a spiky death trap.

For the rest of our 45-minute demo, we judiciously steered clear of these traps — but that didn't save our five or so explorers from death by poison, glowing bat creature, blood loss and more.

But even that's too easy for Capybara Games — each time you die, you'll find that most things aren't exactly in the same places. Using a technique called "procedural generation," Capybara, instead of hand-crafting the environments, designed complicated algorithms which "Below" uses to put together new, semi-random environments each time the player's current character dies.

Despite its somewhat macabre premise and frequent deadly scenarios, "Below" has a serene, beautiful mood thanks largely to its minimalistic art and cool blue tones.

We particularly loved the music of "Below;" its synth-heavy sound captured and enhanced the mystery, wonder and tension of the dark, dangerous pathways. Fans of Capybara Games' hit mobile title "Sword & Sworcery EP" will recognize the signature sound of Jim Guthrie, who composed the music for both games.

"Below" is still a long way from completion, though the team hopes to have it out by the end of the year, when it will release for Xbox One and PCs. In that time, Capybara games plans to add some kind of multiplayer aspect to "Below," as well as expand on the mysteries that the player seeks to solve.

At PAX East "Below" won our hearts with its ability to go from serene "Zelda"-like exploration to abrupt, frustrating death. With the exploratory focus of "Journey" and the brutality of "Dark Souls," "Below" isn't quite like any other game we've played so far.

Email jscharr@techmedianetwork.com or follow her @JillScharr and Google+.  Follow us @TomsGuide, on Facebook and on Google+.

Jill Scharr is a creative writer and narrative designer in the videogame industry. She's currently Project Lead Writer at the games studio Harebrained Schemes, and has also worked at Bungie. Prior to that she worked as a Staff Writer for Tom's Guide, covering video games, online security, 3D printing and tech innovation among many subjects.