The UnderGarden Review (PS3)

For me, mediocre games are the hardest kind to review. How do you write a thousand words about one without coming off as bland as they are? What possible angle is there to take in the write up? It won’t be the first or last time I have to struggle with such questions as I attempt to review The UnderGarden, a downloadable physics puzzler from Artech Studios and Atari.

You play the unnamed hero who kind of looks like an aquatic teletubbie...
The game takes place in a series of maze-like levels known collectively as The UnderGarden where you play as an unnamed and undefined creature that resembles an aquatic Teletubbie. His/her/its goal is that of birthing plant life and finding the secrets of this mysterious undersea realm.

At least that’s what the game infers. What little story there is here is implied from the minimalist tutorial level and two help screens. In fact the game is so vague that during loading screens it asks you “Where is The Undergarden and what lies above?” and “Where is this place? Why is this place?”

Continuing this trend, the game plays fast and loose with what you actually need to do progress. Technically, the player needs only to make it to the end of each stage to beat them. To do this you’ll need use pollen seeds to birth all sorts of plant life and use various fruit or objects in the environment to solve some physics-based conundrums.

There are also plenty of collectables to find on each level like hidden flowers and gems. Even though you only need to revive certain fruit bearing plants to progress, another optional goal is to grow every inch of plant life per stage. By finishing these bonus tasks various skins, costumes and headpieces can be unlocked for your character. All in all, completionists will find no shortage of things to be doing.

You control your character’s movement in these two dimensional stages simply by using the left analogue stick. You also have a dash move at your disposal that can be used for pushing around larger objects and moving around the levels quickly. Aside from the power to pollinate the world, probably your main ability is to pick up and drag around objects with tethers which is essential to solving the majority of the game’s puzzles.

Also inhabiting the game’s stages are these perpetually performing sea chimps called the musicians. Apparently these guys are so into their music they do nothing all day but sit and perform their compositions. The point of them continues to allude me. Picking them up, gathering them together, throwing them around and even hitting them with explosives seems to do very little. The minimalist tutorial level and loading screen hints state that they stimulate already blossomed flora. This is at least true as they cause local plant life to swell up and move about more vigorously but this seems to serve no purpose. Each plays as part of a band and gather enough of them together and you’ll hear a more complete version of the song they’re playing. What does this achieve? Again, apparently nothing.
The strong water currents brought back unpleasent memories of Ecco the Dolphin
If the game’s overall concept sounds uninspiring that’s because for the most part it is. If you’ve played any sort of adventure puzzle game you’ll be intimately familiar with the primary tenants here. Expect to be using objects to weigh down switches and bombs to destroy weakened rock formations – a lot.

The UnderGarden’s more unique pollination mechanic also gets old and monotonous really fast. Because you have to keep gathering pollen from sponge-like sacks and have a limit on how much you can carry at one time this aspect ends up becoming one long escort mission.

Though these mechanics may sound like solid foundations for an interesting game play experience, the problem is they aren’t really used to their full potential. You’re pollinating the world, hitting switches and dropping bombs from the beginning right through to the end of the game with little variation or imaginative design. All in all, game play becomes dull very quickly and more often than not feels like busy work.

The graphics are probably the strongest aspect of The UnderGarden. The contrast of luminescent and kinetic flora against the dimly-lit sea depths is very pleasing to the eye. The excellent lighting also deserves a mention, particularly shining (no pun intended) during the later dingy stages. The backdrops that mirror past levels (which even remember the flora you’ve revived and where you left the musicians) are also a nice touch.

The sound is more in line with the rest of the package. The sound effects just about evoke an underwater vibe though the lack of ambient noise hurts any atmosphere the game was going for. For a game described by its publisher as a “zen-like” experience its music is pretty disappointing too with some light middling synth comprising the bulk of the soundtrack.

The general rule of co-operative gaming is that anything is more entertaining with a friend in tow. The same rings true when you introduce a second player here, making the game more palatable but there’s still no escaping the feeling that this is busy work rather than actual fun.

Combine the sluggish pacing, cutesy creatures and a do-what-you-feel-like structure, The Undergarden seems like it would be best enjoyed by a very young players not all that familiar with video games. In fact, the two player local co-op and low level of challenge makes this a decent title for a parent to play with children.
The strong contrasting (and colourful) visuals are perhaps the game's strong point

But for the majority of gamers above the age of twelve, it will probably fail to engage after the first five minutes or so. Though it’s competently made and packs in a good amount of content overall The UnderGarden makes for a fairly dull experience.

Top Game Moment: I’m not normally one for harming cute creatures in video games but I found blowing the useless musicians around with explosives amusing.

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