Monday, December 24, 2018

Below Expectations

Do you have ADHD?
Capy Games first garnered public attention with the release of their critical darling (the oddly titled) Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP.  It had a nice pixel-art style and interesting presentation, but despite these good points it never really got its hooks into me.  Instead, another Capy production, Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes was what put the company on my radar.  Since then Capy and I haven't crossed paths (so to speak), although I have been waiting eagerly (for five years!) to play their roguelike dungeon-crawler - Below.

Unfortunately for this piece of entertainment software (and many others) there's an inherent problem with video games that have abnormally drawn out development cycles.  With each delay would-be-player expectations tend to increase.  Consciously or not, I think there is an attitude among players that the longer it takes the more refined it will be.  In theory that's true.  However, in reality poor planning, bad design decisions, or simply shoddy coding can force a project back (in some cases all the way back to square one).  At times this leads to truly impressive games (such as the original Half-Life or Resident Evil 2).  In other cases just average (The Last Guardian) or sometimes terrible (Duke Nukem Forever).  In terms of this spectrum, Below falls somewhere in the middle.  Because the specifics of game development are almost universally shrouded in mystery, it's typically very hard to figure out what happened from an outsider's perspective.  Capy Games has gone on record saying basically everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong.  Based on the various clips and trailers it's clear that the game underwent a number of changes.  Personally, I kind of prefered the pixel artwork over the crude polygonal models...and become a bit discouraged as the latter become more prominent over the course of development. 

The real Below starts here...
As far as gameplay goes, I actually like the idea of having multiple player character corpses (rather than the default of only the most recent one).  That said, having to recover certain basic items (namely the lantern) can be a real pain toward the bottom levels.  My guess is the developers thought it would be punishing in the same way as hollow form is in Dark Souls.  The thing is players of that game tend stay in hollow form so much it becomes the default while being fully restored is more of a bonus.  Another important difference is the random layout which changes each time the player has to go on a corpse run.  So, unlike Soulsborne games there is no memorizing enemy and trap locations.  Shortcuts do exist, but their usefulness is somewhat hampered by the need to keep a close eye on hunger and thirst meters.  These ticking timers of doom aren't necessarily a bad bit of game design, but the way in which they are dealt with essentially boils down to farming for resources.  This, along with grinding, are the twin banes of gaming since the 8-bit era.  It turned me off to most JRPGs back in the day and for some reason it still persists even now, tainting otherwise interesting recent titles like Darkest Dungeon and Bad North with their dull and repetitive mechanics.

I suspect that when it comes to Below, the five years between announcement and release lead to some mechanics becoming dated (or at least out of fashion).  It's also possible for game makers to get blind spots because certain mechanics have been in various builds of the game for so long the team stops viewing them with a critical eye. Hopefully, the development team over at Capy Games will come around to the idea of having a flexible approach and patch the game as needed.  Rain World is an excellent example of another game that started off too demanding for most people to enjoy.  The creator was (understandably) reluctant to make sacrifices to his artistic vision, but eventually relented and added a mode that made things less brutal (as well as an unlockable one the made it even more so).  SOMA did something similar with the addition of a "safe mode" which I personally didn't need, but can understand why some folks would prefer it that way.  There's no harm in giving the player more options after all...That's why it's always in the main menu when a game boots up.

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