Review: The UnderGarden (PC)

Billed as a digital palate cleanser of sorts, The UnderGarden is designed to be the anti-Call of Duty. With its rich colors, methodical pacing and mellow music, it's clear that developer Artech Studios was trying to deliver something more along the lines of Flow or Zen Bound, where patience and relaxation are at the crux of the experience.

But unfortunately for The UnderGarden, that experience just ends up feeling like a one-sided exchange with the player coming up short. For a game that's supposed to be about mellowing out and enjoying the ride, there were just too many technical, communicative and design-related problems for me to derive any enjoyment from playing the game. Despite its good intentions and lovely aesthetics, The UnderGarden is unfortunately more trouble than it's probably worth.

While exploring the UnderGarden, you'll bring flora to life and manipulate fruit and fauna to progress. But there's a catch to all of this: The more objects that you’re actively moving, the slower your character moves. And because as you progress further into the game you’ll need to be manipulating more and more objects, the going gets slower and slower. This is ameliorated by a drag-and-release dash move, which the game fails to mention to the player in any way. Still, it’s rare that you’ll be moving in a straight line for very long, and the speed boost you get is comparable to what you’ll get from repeatedly clicking to swim around, so it ends up feeling a bit out of place.

The game's use of color is pleasant, with a subdued, cool palette that springs to life in rich, neon tones. There’s a problem that arises from that, though: Because everything lights up when you pollinate it, it’s difficult sometimes to discern which plants are fruit-bearing and which ones aren’t. Because manipulating fruit is critical to solving puzzles, that created quite a few frustrating moments for me where I'd be circling through the level, trying to hunt down the one plant that produced the fruit I needed for the switch I was required to activate. An inconsistent camera compounds that frustration; viewing angles and zoom levels are sometimes problematic. Either the game will zoom out so far that you can’t see objects on the tops or bottoms of terrain or it’ll zoom in so close that you get disoriented.

The UnderGarden features dynamic music that generally works well, but it’s not seamless. When you encounter musicians — little creatures you carry and use to progress — they’ll each play accompaniment to the background music on their specific instruments. However, there are noticeable stutter points where their loops repeat, interrupting the flow of the experience. It’s nothing game-breaking, but it’s a shame that something as minor as a music loop couldn’t have been fixed for a game that’s so significantly focused on its ambience.

It's possible some of these problems are hardware-related. In fact, this was originally going to be Aaron's review, but he was unable to play the game more than a few minutes before it would crash. After corresponding with the developer, it emerged that there's a known incompatibility with computers that have X-Fi sound cards. Because I've always been too cheap to pick up a sound card, I've been playing through the game without any crashes. But as I played more, I noticed the sound would cut out altogether for longer periods of time — nearly a full second at times. On the second level, the music died completely about halfway through, and nothing I did would bring it back.

The characters look cute at first glance, but they’re bland and even a little creepy. The musicians — monkey-like, infantile creatures — all have the same basic animation cycle. You’re able to customize your own avatar (a strange little spotted thing that looks like a cross between a scaly dolphin and a human baby) with unlockable colors, features, and so forth, but they don’t change the fact that the player character is largely devoid of expression. It smiles constantly and its tongue lolls about, and that's cute, but that expression is unchanging. It's the sort of thing that sticks out like a sore thumb when a bomb explodes next to it or it's struck by an orb that siphons off its pollen. No matter what happens, it doesn’t change expression. It makes it really difficult to become attached to your character.

At its heart, it seems like The UnderGarden is trying to be a smooth, seamless experience that wants to evoke a mood rather than bark orders at the player. It’s a philosophy that resonates with me, and I think it’s a good concept in modern game design. However, The UnderGarden stumbles in attempting to build that sort of seamless experience of mood and feeling by failing to communicate exactly what’s expected of the player and what the player is capable of doing.

For example, the central hub world tracks your completion rating for each level, but it never explicitly states whether there’s a reward for blooming every single plant — a task that seems potentially very tedious. Without any indication of whether that’ll amount to any sort of explicit, tangible reward, what’s there to motivate the player to hug every wall and double-check every plant before moving on? That’s not to mention the other vague categories for completion. What happens if you find every special flower on a level? How do you unlock whatever the music note icon means? And try as I might, I just couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do with musicians. Was I supposed to carry them all to the end of the level? Can I bring them together at a specific point to make something happen? It wasn't clear, and thanks to the game's largely unhelpful built-in manual, I never figured it out.

As frustrating as the sparse in-game manual was, the lack of a full explanation of controls for PC players is just unacceptable. When the game first asked me to push the "boost" key, I had no idea what it was asking me. I checked the options screen and, as it turns out, the game doesn't tell the player how to boost.  The only place you'll see a “boost” button is on the Xbox 360 controller layout. Well, that's helpful.

It's probably pretty clear that I was kind of miffed with this game for the majority of the time I spent with it. However, I think it's worth noting that once I plugged in a wired Xbox 360 controller, the game took on a significantly different feel. Rather than clicking repeatedly to gain momentum like I was playing a Diablo game — a control scheme that's just baffling when paired with a game that's supposed to be relaxing — I could simply tilt the left analog stick and press and release the A button to move around effortlessly. Of course, it didn't do anything to assuage the grievances I have with the game's structure and flow, but it certainly made the experience less frustrating to control.

What makes relatively wordless games like Braid, Flower and Limbo so successful is that they feature a subtle but clear means of informing the player of the game’s goals, boundaries and expectations. The UnderGarden is an example of a game that tries to sweep all those things under the rug and deliver a pure, immersive experience, but it just ends up throwing  the baby out with the bathwater. The result is a game that’s far more confusing to understand and frustrating to play than it needs to be.

The UnderGarden isn’t a bad game as a whole, nor is it a collection of bad ideas. It’s just an underdeveloped concept that fails to draw in the player with meaningful objectives or a compelling environment, and because of its fundamental problems it's not something I feel comfortable recommending. Based on the time I spent using an Xbox 360 controller instead of a keyboard and mouse, it's probable that the game could be more enjoyable on a console; regardless, the PC-specific problems were too serious and frustrating to deal with for me to be able to recommend this game to anyone.

Not Recommended for:

  • Bland, monotonous gameplay that fails to immerse the player or build upon itself
  • A general lack of polish, ranging from audio and art issues to an incomplete help and options section

The UnderGarden is published by Atari and developed by Artech Studios. It is available on PC and Xbox Live Arcade for $9.99/800  Microsoft Points. The publisher provided Silicon Sasquatch with a review copy.

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