Review: The Undergarden (Xbox 360)

The Undergarden
Developer: Vitamin-G
Publisher: Atari
Genre: Puzzle Adventure
Release Date: 10/10/2010

Sometimes, after putting in several hours on a retail game with a lengthy amount of gameplay (I put over 40 hours into Fist of the North Star) I need a breather. So I usually bring myself down, such as it were, with an hour or two spent on a downloadable game on the PSN or XBLA; nothing exciting or challenging like Bionic Commando: Rearmed or Trine (I’ve put the same amount of hours into games like that as I have full retail releases.) No, I usually turn to something simple that I can just turn my brain off and reach my gaming “moment of zen.” The Undergarden is that kind of game.

1. Story

You won’t find any real story here, but that’s by design. This is all about setting a mood. It’s gaming mood music. The gist is your this little Snork like creature who is tasked with keeping an underwater garden that resides in a number of linked caves deep beneath the sea. That’s it. That’s the story. And there’s nothing wrong with that. This sort of title would only be diminished by a lot of unnecessary narrative. Much like Mario rarely has more story to it than “save the princess from Bowser,” The Undergarden doesn’t require anything more taxing on the grey matter than “make the sea lilies bloom again.”

2. Graphics

While this title is certainly not taxing the limits of the Xbox 360, what is here on display is nevertheless a sight to behold. Playing The Undergarden is sort of like sitting in a doctor’s office watching the fish swim in the aquarium while waiting to have an unpleasant examination. it’s just plain relaxing. Everything moves with simplicity and grace indicative of the underwater setting. And much like the accessories one finds for aquariums at the local pet store, the environments all have a bright, glowing neon color palette that just oozes calm. It’s the kind of game where you come home from a stressful day at work, and you don’t even have to play it. You can just sit and watch someone else play and almost be entranced by it. It’s like visual mood therapy.

The only thing really that breaks this so well crafted mold is the Gardener (or whatever he’s called) himself. He’s just, well… there. There’s nothing overly striking or aesthetically pleasing about him. He looks like something you’d pull from a mechanical arm machine in a Japanese arcade. It’s a bit of a letdown to see the wonderful environments that Vitamin-G created, only to have to navigate them with what looks like a cross between a Taiwanese Pokemon rip-off and a Snork. But your eyes will be so naturally drawn to the environments and the little explosions of color that take place as you fertilize the landscape that you’ll hardly pay any visual attention to him at all. The developers could have just as easily made him a little glowing ball, a minuscule little plankton, and the game would still be entrancing to look at. So I can’t really give it points off for graphics just because the main character looks like product of a marriage twixt Teletubby and Sea Smurf.

3. Sound

Being in underwater caves, everything has a a deep reverb and echo to it that lends a sense of mystery to the proceedings. There are no catchy tunes here, more just relaxing tones. Even when you get later into the game and start dealing with puzzles that require the use of explosives, the sounds of the explosions are muffled in a way that doesn’t sound out of place. The one difference here is in The Musicians. These are little gnome-like creatures that play music. If you set one in the midst of flowers you’ve bloomed, his music will change the color and shape of the surrounding flora. And if you grab more than one Musician and set them all together, the music changes both in tune and complexity. Though its inclusion is a bit baffling gameplay-wise (I’ll explain why in a moment) the effect itself is rather unique.

4. Control and Gameplay

The controls are seamless, and feel just like you’d expect when propelling a Horned Water Pikmin through the briny depths. The gameplay consists of moving your Gardener though various caves, running him up and down the cave walls with fertilizer to make the sea flowers bloom. Your supply of fertilizer is finite, so occasionally you have to find a small glowing green cactus-like plant and refill your fertilizer meter. Always refill whenever you see one, as there are special rewards for blooming 100% of each level.

In each cave you will find various puzzles blocking your way. Through the first seven caves you won’t see anything more elaborate than various walls or obstructions that have to be moved in order to proceed. This is done by way of three different types of fruit: fruit that’s heavy and causes platforms to sink, fruit that’s buoyant and causes platforms to rise, or explosive fruit that blasts walls to pieces. Once you get past those first seven caves things start to get a lot more involved, but the puzzles are never frustrating or hard to figure out.

Now, about those Musicians. For the life of me I can’t really find any reason for them being in the game other than being a fun little distraction (and unlocking an achievement or two.) Yes, they play different music if you grab them all, and yes you get bonuses for finding all of them in a given cave, but other than that, they don’t really add to the gameplay insofar as using them to solve any special “Musician” puzzles, or at least, none that I could find. I did, however, find one way to get some more fun out of them. Remember those bomb fruits I mentioned? It can be oddly satisfying when playing co-op (and this is about the ONLY reason to play the game in co-op, since the camera stays locked on player one and there are no two player specific puzzles like in, say, Little Big Planet) to gather all the Musicians together, then drop a handful of bomb fruit on them and just watch them fly, and listen to the music suddenly scatter in stereo across the cave (there’s even an achievement for doing this.)

Each level has a completion percentage based on how many flowers you bloom, how many of the musicians you find, how many special “secret” flowers you find, and so on. Earning high levels unlocks new items you can use to somewhat customize the look of your Gardener: new horns, body color, and so on. It’s nice to have, but I didn’t spend much time playing around with his appearance, as it doesn’t effect his abilities in any way I could detect. To me, it’s like dressing a chihuahua up in little outfits. Sure, he stands out from other chihuahuas, but he still looks kinda freaky.

5. Replayability

There are several caves to explore, and the goal of 100% bloom and finding all the hidden items adds some incentive to the game, but once you’ve completed it, there’s not much reason to go back. And yet you will. Why? Because it’s just one of those games. It’s hard to describe. back in the NES days I beat Megaman 2 the third day I had it. And then I beat it again. And again. And again. I’ve probably beat that game well over a hundred times over the past 20 plus years, simply because it’s more than a challenging platformer: it’s an experience. It’s just one of those games that puts you in the zone, and The Undergarden has a similar pull (though nowhere near the difficulty). You’ll find yourself playing long after you’ve seen all that it has to offer, with no real idea why you are. But here’s the thing: you won’t care.

6. Balance

It’s a bit of an understatement to say that The Undergarden falls well onto the easy side of the game difficulty spectrum. But it’s supposed to be that way. I wouldn’t call it a kid’s game. Again, its more of a therapeutic experience. It relaxes you, and offers easy to attain but no less enjoyable visual and aural rewards for doing what you’re supposed to do. You are the lab rat, the cave is the maze, and the flowers are the cheese. But again, I do feel compelled to mention that you will play through the first seven caves, doing mostly the same things where puzzles are concerned, and then all of a sudden here come these new mechanics. They’re certainly not unwelcome, as they do add some variety to the mix, but I wonder why they waited till so far into the game to put them in. it’s a sudden change in game mechanics that throws the balance off a bit.

7. Originality

Yeah, unfortunately Vitamin-G won’t be winning big in this category, as while The Undergarden is a unique mix of gameplay mechanics and visual style, the separate components of it have been borrowed from older titles. Let’s put it this way. I find it odd that this game hasn’t made it to PSN yet, because I have no doubt in my mind that the developers at Vitamin-G are huge fans of Pixel Junk Shooter and Flower. The levels are laid out like Pixel Junk Shooter. The grab mechanic from Pixel Junk Shooter is similar to the grab mechanic found here. And come on, “listen to calming mood music while traversing the landscape and magically making flowers grow, with with blooming flower causing a music cue?” Replace the Sea Munchkin with a single flower petal and you’d have a side scrolling Flower on your hands, even right down to the special “hidden” green flowers. This in no means detracts from the enjoyment of the game at all, but it bears mentioning. Suffice it to say, if I were going to make a calming DLC game for XBLA or PSN, I can scarcely think of two better games to draw inspiration from. Still, we rate originality for a reason around her, so this one I have to ding them on.

8. Addictiveness

You know, when I took this job I had no idea how darn stressful it could be to write under a deadline… you know what? Stay right there, I’ll be back in twenty minutes or so. (*cranks up The Undergarden and plays a level he’s beaten 20 times already*) Aaaaaaaaaah. Now, where were we?

9. Appeal Factor

This would be a great game for fans of Pixel Junk Monsters and Flower. The problem there is that those are both PSN exclusives, so no one who only owns an Xbox 360 will have played either one of them. Still, this title somewhat fills the void their absence leaves in the XBLA library, so this is a good fit for those without PS3 who have looked upon either of those titles and felt a twinge of envy. And even for those who haven’t even heard of the aforementioned PSN exclusive classics, this is a good fit for a nice “change of pace” sort of game, something to break up the monotony of your nightly four hour online fragathon. And it’s fun for every age group. Whether you’re 8 or 80, everyone will find something to like about this title. It just won’t be the Gardener. Well, not unless you’re a fan of the Boo Bahs or Monchich’s.

10. Miscellaneous

If you get your Gardener real close to the ground, he’ll do this sort of “Little Lord Fontleroy” skipping prance like he’s off to the market with Mummy to buy stuffing for a nice gooseberry pie, or whatever. Even I had to laugh at that every time he did it. It’s little quirky things like this that you’ll find here and there throughout the game that make it all the more enjoyable, even if you feel a little odd for enjoying it. From his prance of joy to the sheer mindless fun of blowing up Musicians and seeing them (with their horns still at their lips) flying across the screen, the little seemingly throwaway touches the developers snuck in lends the game a certain charm that most DLC titles fail to accomplish.

The Scores
Story: Decent
Graphics: Great
Sound: Great
Control and Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Good
Balance: Good
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal Factor: Good
Miscellaneous: Great
FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME!

Short Attention Span Summary

The Undergarden is a relaxing simple puzzler that draws inspiration from the cave exploring adventure of Pixel Junk Shooter and the music altering flora-blooming of Flower. It’s easy to pick up, fun for all ages, and has the kind of vibe where you can just prop your feet up after several hours of blasting the Covenant and just let the act of tending your sea garden take you away. It’s the Calgon of XBLA.

Tags: , , ,