The UnderGarden Review
By Monica Bair |
I appreciate adorable things; puppies, plushies, and cats all make me smile when I see them. This extends to entertainment as well, as I've never been the type to shy away from a game simply because its aesthetic makes it look like it's not "hardcore" enough. Keeping this in mind it should come as no surprise that I adored the sensory portions of The Undergarden. Playing as an undersea gardener might sound boring to some, but the visual and auditory experience it gives is a fun way to forget about the day for a few moments at a time.
Plants bloom in an array of colors.The Undergarden is unlike so many other games because it's about creating rather than destroying. You play as a sort of underwater fairy, swimming through a series of caves in an effort to grow a beautiful array of plant life. Along the way several relatively simplistic physics-based puzzles will impede your progress, forcing you to use your brain in order to keep using your green thumb. You can never die and you can never really fail (though you can reload checkpoints if you get stuck on geometry).
The point of Undergarden isn't to present the player with mind-boggling challenges, but instead to give them a chance to just enjoy the sensory pleasure that exploration brings. Your character gathers pollen from green sacs that are all over the world and uses this to bloom flowers and plants just by swimming past them. The flora bursts forth from the ground in any number of shapes and vivid colors, dramatically altering the visual landscape. This constant explosion of color also encourages thorough exploration, as it's almost always a delight to roll through a barren area and cut swathes of color just by moving.
Sound also plays a crucial role in the Undergarden experience, as players alter the world through music. You can bloom flowers once by passing over them with pollen, but if you want to change their appearance you have to gather up musicians and bring them close to the flora. Musicians all have a specific instrument, and taking them along with you changes the music you hear depending on what they're playing. Taking them is totally optional, but the way they constantly manipulate the flowers -- making them grow and regrow so long as they're within proximity to them -- is entrancing enough that I found myself dragging them wherever I could take them.
Exploration is important if you're trying to get a 100% rating as far as bloom goes in a level, but it, along with every other objective save reaching the end of a level, is only there to give goal-minded players something to focus on. Collectables populate every level in The Undergarden, but the whole point of the game is to simply relax and enjoy the way you're influencing the world around you. It's engaging in short bursts, but, like listening to the sound of the ocean, bored me after any prolonged period of time despite its beauty.
The physics puzzles are rarely challenging.The puzzles in The Undergarden help break up the pacing to some extent, but these are fairly uncreative until the latter half. Special plants are grown that yield fruits with specific qualities (some are heavy, others float, others explode, etc.), and these are used to manipulate stone machines and blocks so that players can proceed through the caves. Most of the puzzles boil down to simply using fruits to push switches or bombs to blow up stones, but the ending levels throw in enough new mechanics (and blend them together in cool ways) to make for some really entertaining level design. The sad part is that Undergarden rolls out new mechanics unevenly, with the first seven stages feeling relatively feature-light compared to the latter ones. No concept in it is that hard to understand, so I can't help but find myself wondering why the hell they decided not to implement the cool ideas throughout the majority of the levels? It certainly would have made it more entertaining for longer periods of time.
You might think multiplayer would keep The Undergarden interesting for longer periods of time, but you'd be wrong. Very wrong. Playing with a friend is awkward, as the camera focuses only on the first player, resulting in a series of frustrating incidents where the second player disappears off the screen. Sure, he reappears next to the other player, but it just feels like a half-hearted attempt at implementing cooperative play.
The PC version also has control issues. On top of being unable to customize your controls via any menus, it's obviously been designed for a controller. Using the keyboard and mouse feels clunky, and Undergarden never actually teaches you which keys do what (with some controls not even being displayed in the menus). This is unacceptable, and makes what would otherwise be a good port seem sloppy.