Review / The Undergarden (PC)

While some games desperately grab for your attention with relentlessly needy bombast, others are more content to immerse you in their world by way of osmosis, gently seeping into your brain and taking root in your imagination.

Vastly outnumbered by their noisy cousins, these types of games come along rarely. For every Flower or Cloud, there are dozens of Call of Honors and Medal of Dutys. So when they do appear they should be cherished. The Undergarden is one such experience. A thoroughly unpretentious affair, it’s nevertheless almost hypnotically affecting.

You play as a cute little marine creature who, bless it, looks like the product of a drunken fumble between Makapaka and a Teletubby. Swimming gently through deep blue-filtered subterranean caverns Makatubby must make it from one end to the other, solo or with a partner via local co-op, fertilising and growing aquatic plants as you go.

This is perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the game. Swooping along through the water as gorgeous over-saturated flowers and plants bloom and blossom behind you looks and feels wonderful. Facilitated by the collection of pollen from sacks scattered throughout the environment, you can fertilise entire cave networks, turning them from sparse tunnels into a thriving neon oasis.

Accompanying this is some lovely orchestration that bobs and flows along with the on-screen action. Soothing synthesized waves wash out of the speakers, punctuated only by the tinkling of pollen collection, or the slightly rubbery sound of the plants growing and expanding.

The soundscape is also augmented by the collection of “musicians,” cute little companion fellas that affect the environment. Encountered on your journey through the caves, once leashed these musicians parp out little complimentary melodies in your wake, adding multiplier bonuses and helping to grow particular fruits.

These fruits play into the puzzle aspect of the game. Now, if you are wondering why I left it this long to mention them, it’s because they are they are arguably The Undergarden’s least interesting aspect. That’s not to say the puzzles are poorly designed, they are not. But they offer little or no challenge.

Each fruit has different abilities. Some are heavy and sink, others are bouyant and drift towards the surface, while others explode. All are used to negotiate the environmentally-themed physics puzzles obscuring your progress from tunnel to cavern, level to level. So, you’ll have to position fruits in the required areas to push, lift or blow-op whatever it is getting in your way.

Rather than an oversight, these simple puzzles are actually a part of the design. This isn’t a game intended to purplex, test and frustrate. Instead The Undergarden seeks to offer relaxing respite from the explosive experiences found elsewhere.

To help this along, the developers have reduced consequence and punishment to an almost non-existent degree. Along with the easy puzzles, your character can never die or get injured and no stage has to be started over again. You simply drift from level to level, letting it all wash over you.

Whether or not that sounds appealing will ultimately dictate whether or not you enjoy The Undergarden. It’s a resolutely casual experience that those  motivated by engaging mechanics and challenge will no doubt find utterly dull.

You can float through all of The Undergarden’s 14 levels in around four hours, according to the developers. That’s if you don’t mess around. But if you approach the game from this perspective, then you’re getting it wrong. The online leaderboards and completion statistics on offer here mask the fact that this is a game that isn’t actually that great at being a game.

What it is great at being is a wonderfully calming experience. Regardless of its faults, The Undergarden is a charming place to spend your time.

+ Gorgeous colourful graphics
+ A soothing, ambient electronic soundtrack
+ Smooth controls (on a controller)

– Puzzles are easy
– Relatively short
– Offers little in the way of replayability

The Undergarden floats onto Xbox Live Arcade and PC on Nov. 10, and in the New Year on PlayStation Network.

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