Tiny Cartridge 3DS

Below the Mystery Dungeon ⊟

I’ve been freaking out about Capy’s Below for a couple months now, eager to talk about this latest project from the Toronto studio that brought us masterpieces like Sword & Sworcery and Clash of Heroes.

Yes, it’s currently a timed Xbox One exclusive (meaning it could release on another platform in the future), something this handheld-focused blog doesn’t often feature, but we’re making an exception for several reasons:

  1. Just going off the little we’ve seen so far, Below looks aces.
  2. This developer has made some brilliant portable titles. Come back to handhelds, Capy. :o(
  3. Below shares a lot of similarities with a series I hold dear and have praised on Tiny Cartridge to death.

If it’s not obvious from the GIF (grabbed from VGJunk), that series is Chunsoft’s Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer. But before we point out parallels between the two, let’s look at why we’re hyped about Below, in case you’re just now hearing about this indie game.

Releasing next year as a downloadable title, Below is an adventure game that places a lot of emphasis on atmosphere and exploration. You’re a tiny character scouting a desolate island and its hidden depths — the camera’s zoomed way back to demonstrate the scale of this gorgeous but dangerous setting, and to also communicate a sense of intimidation and loneliness in your hero.

It’s heavily inspired by roguelikes, a genre that’s influenced several awesome titles lately like Spelunky and Demon’s Souls. That inspiration means you can expect several features common to roguelikes in Below: randomly generated dungeons, permadeath (when your character dies, you continue on as another character with a randomly generated outfit), and a world that could kill you at every corner if you don’t have your wits about you.

Below shares a bit in common with a particular roguelike, the revered Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer series that debuted in the U.S. with a DS game in 2008. While that release and a 2010 Wii game found a devoted following here, no publisher has shown interest in localizing any of its sequels since (Nintendo has been happy to bring over all of the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon spin-off games, though). That’s why I was so excited when Capy debuted Below at E3, and when I heard so much about the game that sounded like Shiren.

Shiren the Wanderer DS (enhanced port of the 1995 Super Famicom game)

To be clear, Below wasn’t directly inspired by Shiren. Though creative director Kris Piotrowski has worked on the project since 2009, he told us that he hadn’t actually played Shiren until recently when Metanet Software’s (N+) Raigan Burns introduced him to the series — his experience with the genre came more from Western roguelikes like Angband. But when Piotrowski did finally make his way through the Japanese game’s difficult dungeons, he noticed a number of ideas familiar from his own project.

Beyond having a world you can actually see (many roguelikes only offer ASCII graphics) and a protagonist often referred to by the team as “The Wanderer,” Below has a number of elements Shiren fans will appreciate. One of them is a sense of persistence.

"Even though your character’s life is a very short and fleeting effort, whatever it is that you’ve managed to discover or complete or change in the world is something that your next character will be able to build on," said Piotrowski in an interview publisher in this month’s issue of Game Informer. If you played Shiren, you remember that one of the best parts of the DS game is slowly opening up NPC relationships, systems (e.g. melding pots and Bufu’s staff), and paths after interactions spread across dozens of failed runs. Below takes it a step further, though, in that certain aspects of the game are connected to the overall progress players are making online.

Here’s how multiplayer in Below works, by the way: you venture through the game as a single-player experience, but as you go deeper into its single-screen dungeons, you might run into other wanderers every now and then. I love that it’s a non-traditional take on the multiplayer experience — Shiren has a different but also odd online system in which players could call on others to rescue and resurrect them if they die.

Close-up of multiplayer combat in Below

Like most roguelikes, Below will try to force you to evaluate every encounter. The game won’t be turn-based, but it won’t have Diablo-style mass slaughters either — you’ll still have to consider each enemy, your weapons and gear, and the environment. Charging into battles without keeping all of that in mind can send you to an early grave.

"You don’t have this massive amount of weapons to choose from and moves to go through," Capy president Nathan Vella pointed out to Game Informer. “It’s about this simple and relatively small number of choices, but because the pressure or the impact of those choices is higher, it does require you to think them through, to master them. I think that the combat is very fair. You’re never going to get screwed into dying. You’re going to die because you made a mistake or because you didn’t know what this enemy was going to do.”

Hearing that brings to mind all the questions I’d ask myself when running into a room full of mobs in Shiren: “Are there any nearby bottlenecks I can retreat to and take advantage of? What’s the best way to neutralize all these enemies and in what order? Which ones have weird attack patterns or abilities that will screw me up? Do I have a staff or scroll to help me get out of this alive when it all inevitably goes to shit?” The difference is that in Below, you’ll have to figure out an answer to all those problems in real-time.

Another combat close-up

There’s at least one specific Shiren-style system planned for Below that Capy won’t detail yet and might not discuss until well after the game’s released. “I’m hoping players end up not knowing too much about the secret systems within the game,” Piotrowski explained to us. “We’re sorta hoping to show and say as little as possible, so that the game can really be about discovery.”

That was something else I enjoyed so much about Shiren, that sense of discovery. When the DS game released, it was like the grade-school gaming experience all over again, except with an online community popped up to share theories and tips for how things worked in the game, not to mention strategies for surviving a complete run. Similar communities have also popped up for recent roguelike-inspired releases like Dark/Demon’s Souls.

Mysterious bit from the Below trailer shown at Horizon

As I wrap this up, I realize I wrote far more than I expected about Shiren-isms that have me excited about Below (yes, a great deal of this can be applied to other games in the genre, but it’s the roguelike that I suspect most Tiny Cartridge readers are familiar with). We haven’t had many opportunities to talk about Shiren due to its absence in the West in recent years, though, so I’m sure some of you appreciated it.

And if you’ve never played Shiren but you skimmed this article anyway to read about Below, go out and get the DS game! Or you could learn more about why everyone loves it so much in John Harris’s old but brilliant @Play column at GameSetwatch, which was probably responsible for single-handedly converting hundreds (maybe thousands?) of readers into roguelike fans.

BUY Shiren the Wanderer (DS and Wii), upcoming games

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