Review: The UnderGarden

The Undergarden is a simple game where you control a blue cherub of benevolence who bumps into glowing green pustules which emit magic dust you must use to pollinate bioluminecent plants that change color if you’re carrying an instrument-playing monkey.  Got it?  Not quite?  It’s not apparent whether the developers did, either.

This game asks the player to let go of their rigid expectation of an interactive experience,  just chill out, and go with the flow.  It doesn’t ask much of the player, and neither does it provide much in return. I was immediately drawn to The Undergarden’s visuals, and their contrasting of dark and light.  The environments are shadowy, cavernous underwater depths in which your character adds light and color to by activating the bioluminecent flowers that reside there.  The blooming of the local flora is a pleasure to watch.  Walls full of tiny little buds spring to life as in a very fluid and satisfying motion as the character passes them.  Parallax scrolling adds to the feeling of depth to the game as  other zones from the current level can be seen in the distance behind the player.  It’s all visually satisfying, except that the player doesn’t seem to actually move, but more on that later.

The soundtrack is composed of slow-paced, lucid ambient music which is fitting with the whole relaxing theme of this title.  To spice it up, placed throughout the levels are little colorful monkeys called Musicians, which add layers to the soundtrack by playing various instruments.  The Musicians affect the environment causing the plants change color when they’re carried past them.  This neat touch of synesthesia adds to the experience, although I was not able to find any practical gameplay reason for simian-to-plant chromatic relationship.

The UnderGarden is explored by moving around the 2D space using the analog stick.  Your character can fly, float or swim an any direction. Which of these means of transportation is taking place is a bit of an enigma.  It’s as if the developer is saying not to worry about it and just pretend the little blue cherub dude is an insignificant part of the overall hallucination.  Short bursts of speed can be attained by holding down and releasing the A button, kind of like revving up  Sonic the Hedgehog except there’s no apparent force exerted on the environment and the inertia dies off almost immediately.

Progression through the game is attained by traversing from portal to portal, harvesting pollen from green nodes and blooming cave flora until the end of the level is found.  The flower-blooming mechanic is very similar to the “Wall-humping” technique used by OCD players of 16-bit era RPGs, where every tile of every wall is searched during normal gameplay to make sure no hidden treasure is missed.  This game requires you to crawl along nearly every wall if you want to bloom 100% of the flowers, but it’s not challenging, just time-consuming.  The puzzle elements come into play when the path is blocked by cavern walls and boulders, which can be moved by pushing with your character or by harvesting seeds off of trees.  Some seeds are heavy and can push mutable floors down.  Other seeds are buoyant and can raise walls.  The third kind are volatile and explode several seconds after they’re dropped.  Early in the game, the controls appear to be very loose and forgiving, but in later puzzles, it is becomes evident that they’re just loose and imprecise.  Frequently, narrow tunnels must be traversed, but sometimes you and the items you’re carrying get stuck.  Usually you can squeeze through by pulling back and going at it again, but doing this monkey-humping of the environment just to progress becomes tiresome.

The UnderGarden’s underwater theme is appropriate, given the swimmy controls. Their attempt at trying to merge aspects of games like Flow and Flower with a character-driven platformer is an experiment which was worth pursuing.  However, the final result comes of short of being a compelling experience.

Ups

  • graphics combine muted depth with bright sprouts of color.
  • soundtrack is mellow and ambient, gets funky when you carry a monkey.
  • doesn’t require precision, initially

Downs

  • player’s avatar isn’t animated, it’s weird and almost stiff
  • imprecision in the latter half of the game
  • gameplay is overly simplistic and offers players little feedback

Bottom Line

A visually polished and aurally pleasant title which tries to blend a couple gaming styles, and comes up short.

Full Disclosure

This game was provided for review by the publisher.

This game was played approx. 60% to completion and 2-player mode was not reviewed.