The Undergarden Review
In recent years, Xbox Live and the Playstation Network have become fertile ground for unique “small” titles, proving you don't need to spend several years and a small fortune to make a great game. Vitamin G Studios (a subsidiary of Artech Studios, the makers of Aces of the Galaxy) is out to prove that point once again with its hypnotic puzzler, The Undergarden.
In some ways, The Undergarden is hard to describe. For one thing, there's no story. The closest you get to context are clever little loading screen hints that say things like “Where is the Undergarden? Why is The Undergarden?” This lack of narrative would hurt lesser games; in this one it only serves to augment the mystery of it. While the gameplay reveals somewhat more, it's still an exemplary exercise in addictive simplicity. We may not know the “where” or “why” of the game, but we do know the “what” of it. The Undergarden is a glowing, magical, underwater world populated by adorable little multi-colored creatures that could be close relatives of the Teletubbies. You play as one of these and your job is to gather pollen from green pod-like things and then float blissfully around, using it to grow pretty flowers and plants. Ideally, the goal is to make the entire garden grow by navigating a series of maze-like passageways. The puzzling comes in when you encounter various obstructions in these passageways and have to find a way around or through them.
Luckily, your green (or purple or orange) thumb comes in handy here – different plants produce different fruit, all of it useful to you in some way. Some fruit is heavy and can be used to force gates down while other fruit floats like helium balloons and can force gates up. Some plants produce explosive spores that can be used to blast your way through stone barriers and others produce lantern fruit that can light your way through areas of thick, dark fog. Whatever kind of fruit you need, you pick it up by pressing the X button, then tow it behind you to wherever it's needed. Moving through water is not a speedy experience even unburdened, but towing things makes you float even more slowly. Thankfully, you can put on a burst of speed just by holding and releasing the A button. Some puzzles might require multiple fruit-gathering trips and in order to keep the trees blooming, you have to bring a musician and park him near the tree. Musicians are found throughout the levels; they look like mini-me versions of your character and you'll find them happily jamming out on a pipe, drum or stringed instrument. They can be towed around the same way as the fruit and it's fairly amusing watching your character floating around the environment towing behind him a Teletubby quartet.
Though many-pathed and at times mind-boggling, the levels in The Undergarden are more or less linear. You enter levels via a spinning vortex and after making your way through, you leave it via a second vortex. It's certainly possible to zoom straight through from start to finish, but exploratory types will be rewarded for going down those side passages with special flowers and crystals that count toward your end score. As levels are completed, you unlock alternate player character models as well as accessories for them, like horns, a top hat/moustache combo or a daisy bonnet (all of which up the cute factor of your character even more!).
There's both a single player and a two-player co-op mode but problems in co-op reveal that at its heart, The Undergarden is a single player game. During co-op, both players appear on the same screen and in order to keep both players visible at the same time, player two is forced to warp to player one's location. This sounds good but in practice it actually undermines the notion of cooperative effort. For example, if player two's carrying something and player one gets too close to the edge of the screen, player two warps to player one's position, dropping whatever it was he was carrying. Player one also has control of the camera so it's impossible for player two to ever really lead. The result is more “one player follows and does what the other player says” rather than a true co-operative experience.
Regardless, The Undergarden's single player game is excellent. In addition to offering peacefully addictive gameplay, the art direction, with its ethereal lighting and neon plant life will blow your mind. The music does a lot for the game too, contributing funky little tunes played by the various musicians. The most noticeable one, played by the little dude with the stringed instrument, is highly reminiscent of The Cure's classic, “The Caterpillar” which intentional or not, is perfectly fitting.
The Undergarden is a highly successful example of the adage, “less is more”. Its elegant simplicity will keep you engaged for hours without shooting, powerups, upgrading, leveling, dialog trees or versus play. The game's artwork delights and its music transports, making for three to four hours of pure gaming bliss. The Undergarden is a steal at the bargain price of 800 Xbox Points ($9.99 on PC). Make sure you don't miss it.