…it’s a story-driven, dungeon-delving online card game you play in your browser. You play Below cards to explore the dungeon and Above cards to renew your spirit. But the more you draw on the Above deck, the more dire the plight that drove you into the dungeon.
Its inspirations are Beowulf, Moria, the Tombs of Atuan, and a whole pile of folklore. You can learn the Giant-Tongue, speak at the Althing, bargain with the White-Handed Lady who is sometimes called death, forge a Lion-Helm, hunt outlaws in a haunted barrow, outwit a Troll-Wife, and leave legacies for those who follow you (like a Streak of White Hair, Words of Caution, or Family Secrets).
Cards from the “Below” deck open storylets about the dungeon space you’re exploring: the bodies you find, the shrines and cavernous chambers, stairways up and down, sounds heard in the dark. You can choose how to interact with them; as in Fallen London, there is usually a chance of failure that depends on a particular skill you have, and you can earn second chance options to apply in advance if you know you may want to reroll a particular attempt. The deeper you go in the world, the more dangerous the traps you encounter — though they mostly are traps, rather than rogue-style fights with beasts. You can find treasure, and spend it again to acquire improved equipment; you can equip new items when you’re encamped, changing the way you relate to the world. Over time, you can acquire skills and reputation points that will carry over to your future characters even if your current one dies. You also find waypoints that you can return to later, which is very useful if you want to traverse many levels of the dungeon a once, or if you need to get back to a safe haven in which to cure particular conditions. (As well as being Hurt or low in Spirit, you can also be Weary, Watched, Cursed, Lost, in the Dark, and probably one or two other things I’ve yet to encounter: each of these brings its own risks and drawbacks.)
The design of all this is tighter and more tactical than in most StoryNexus pieces I’ve tried. You’re not juggling the legions of qualities that appear in Fallen London or Sunless Sea, and there’s no grind to speak of. Instead, you will often find yourself thinking things like “I should go up a level so that this dungeon feature will be safer for me to attempt” or “I should gain some more second chances before I try this branch”, making short term plans that are reasonably easy to carry out.
Below also has a fairly extensive backstory accessed through your memories, which flesh out the world above even while you are down in the caverns. Memories can restore your flagging spirit when you are distressed or pursued by monsters, and you can draw them from an “Above” deck that accompanies the “Below” deck.
The “Above” deck features deckbuilding — something I’ve always thought was a natural for SN but haven’t seen really explored before now. You can spend resources to buy new Above cards, more powerful memories that will be more useful to you when you click on them. Some of those Above cards have a trashing mechanic (lose this card until you buy another copy of it) in exchange for especially good outcomes. This was quite cool, though I was disappointed that the “Summer Fair” card turned out to be most useful if you were interacting with other Below players, and was thus currently suboptimal for me because none of my friends are trying the game at the moment.
There is a dungeon that you can play for free and another you have to pay for, if you want, but unlike some earlier SN projects, Below doesn’t limit actions very hard, so you can play quite a lot of it at a time. Money is handled through the same Nex units used by Fallen London and other StoryNexus games, so if you’re into those, you’ll already have an account.
I’m by no means done with Below — I haven’t even finished the life of my first character — but I’m enjoying the atmosphere, which feels more evocatively Anglo-Saxon or Icelandic than any other rogue-like I’ve tried.
(Disclaimer: I’ve worked on Failbetter projects that also involved Chris.)