The UnderGarden Review
The UnderGarden, according to the press releases, is a “Zen-like game,” which is about as useful as saying it contains all the intricacies of origami – it’s a very pretty phrase with some pleasant connotations, but it means precisely sod all in terms of conveying what the game is about. It doesn’t help that different people have different interpretations as to what a Zen game is. For me, Geometry Wars is a Zen game: consciously thinking about my actions guarantees a swift death, while letting my mind wander and my reactions and instincts take over helps. Is The UnderGarden like that? No.
Fortunately, another press release describes The UnderGarden as a “Zen puzzler,” which is slightly more useful and might’ve saved us both some time had I discovered it before planning out this introduction. I can go one further in description, though: The UnderGarden is a game with a lovely ambient soundtrack and pretty glowing graphics designed to relax you and soothe your mind while you solve some simple physics puzzles.
That doesn’t sound as good as “Zen puzzler,” though, does it?
As a swimming horned plant/foetus thing, you wander a network of caves, picking up pollen from spore sacs in order to grow plants that will help you reach the exit. Some plants grow fruit, and different types of fruit have different effects. Some are electrical and can power machinery, some are explosive, some float upwards or weigh downwards, and you can drag them all along behind you. Water currents need to be bypassed or utilised, switches need to be weighed down, and floating jellyfish things need to be avoided. It’s strange how sane this all sounds having played the game.
You can’t die, obviously, as that wouldn’t be very soothing. Bombs can blast you away, and jellyfish things will spit you back in the direction you came from, but nothing can actually kill you. If you manage to get yourself stuck – a possibility, with some of the strong water currents that may wedge you into a corner – then holding down a key will warp you back to the last checkpoint.
Nor is The UnderGarden particularly hard. A few puzzles require thought, but you can count these on the fingers of one hand; most levels simply require you to drift along and do the only thing possible at any given time. If your path ahead is blocked by rubble and there’s an exploding fruit nearby, you don’t need to be a genius to figure out what to do next. If there’s a room filled with pressure pads and dark patches (which can only be entered with a light) and you only have access to heavy fruit, then you’ll want to start with the pressure pads. Admittedly, this ease only applies if you’re trying to get to the end of each level – if you fancy blooming every flower on every level, and ferreting out the hidden crystals and flowers, then you will actually have to do a bit of thought and solve some surprisingly in-depth puzzles. This is where the game’s real challenge lies.
Put together, it means that the difficulty caters for both the people who want a puzzle game, and those who want to drift along to the game’s beauty. The level design, however, does not. Corridors are tight, and fruit that you drag with you can get snagged easily and caught, making traversing some locations an exercise in frustration. Backtracking factors in heavily: you’ll continue along a path, find your next obstacle, sigh, and wander back along the level to find the fruit you need to continue. Which will snag on the walls. It’s not exactly the free-flowing relax-a-thon of Flower.
When the levels are working in step with the audio and visuals, though, everything is as charming as could be. Whoever did the sound design deserves to be applauded: collecting specks of pollen rewards you with lovely tinkling chimes, while the various musicians dotted around the levels – who can also be taken with you – play the level’s theme, which you’ll only hear in its entirety if you have all of the instrumentalists with you at any given time. The graphics, too, are beautiful; with a full pollen count, lovely glowing flowers and plants will spring to life around you as you proceed, swaying and changing colour as you bring musicians past them. Once you’re used to that, advancing with no pollen feels alien. Without blooming flowers, the levels feel genuinely cold and barren.
If anything, the real problems appear when the design exceeds the game’s reach. The tutorial tells you that the musicians are required for fruit to bloom again and again on the trees, which appears to have absolutely no basis in reality, rendering the musicians pointless unless you want to drag them to the level exits. This is presumably done to avoid further frustration and backtracking, but it’s a little odd that it’s still mentioned. There’s a distinct lack of mystery, too; despite The UnderGarden having all the hallmarks of a Limbo or Braid, you’re not going to be puzzling over what it all means. The loading screen poses questions as to the nature of the game, but it seems like this was thrown in so that a checkbox for “hint at meaning” could be ticked. This is perhaps the most disappointing thing – while playing I got a distinct cynical feeling from the game, as though it was designed to be mysterious according to a checklist, rather than growing into it from a central idea.
If you can ignore this feeling, though, and are happy to play in short bursts so as to avoid the repetition of the simple puzzles and the irritation that the control problems cause, then The UnderGarden certainly an interesting and novel experience. Turn off the lights, turn up the sound, and immerse yourself.