Review: The Shadows of the Underworld (Microsoft Xbox 360)

The Shadows of The Underworld
Developer: Totabiento
Publisher: Xbox Live Arcade
Genre: Shooter
Release Date: 03/30/10

Video games have long given tribute to the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Every tentacle-faced monster is, in its way, saluting his works of horror. Very few games have outright made non-Euclidean geometry and Cthonic fears the entire point of the game. To that end, we have an indie game on Xbox LIVE from Totabiento. Take the journey to The Shadows in the Underworld, and let’s find out how badly your sanity breaks.

The Shadows in the Underworld takes place in 1945. You are the captain of an experimental submarine, searching below the ice of Antarctica for oil reserves. Shortly after submerging, you find yourself locked in a deep, black, frozen cavern without air or light. Thus begins your quest to find a path back to the surface before you and your crew suffocate. Between chapters you read some decent journal entries describing what is going on and trying to rationalize what you are seeing. Speaking of seeing, the graphics are pretty good for an indie game. The basic scheme is a cell-shaded look, with lots of blues, grays, and whites. Monsters have a neat “demon-shrimp” look going for them, and the effects of weapons and traps all animate very well. Things do get a bit repetitive from room to room though, and that hurts the feeling of exploration that was so clearly the target. As good as the graphics are, the sounds really make this game. From the ping of sonar to the creepy piano tunes, the sound is really well done. There is no spoken dialogue, but then it is a very cheap title and a small file to boot.

If the graphics and sound are good for the price, how about the controls? Well, sadly, it is time to cue the gibbering horrors. On paper, everything works. You move about with the left stick and aim your massive searchlight with the right. This also controls which direction you fire your torpedoes when you pull the right trigger. If you want to get close, there is even a chainsaw on the bottom of the boat. You will need to manage several status bars, such as health, air, and energy, in order to fight the monsters that dwell beneath the ice. There are a series of power-ups to grab which can be used to upgrade the submarine in the categories of health, speed, air, and firepower. All of this works, up until you actually have to start playing and fighting against the dark denizens of the deep. The Shadows of the Underworld is a hard, unforgiving game.

I’m also fairly certain it is glitched and broken. Here’s what I mean: I would be piloting my sub, looking for a way out or power-ups, and then suddenly I would go from a normal moving pace to rocketing around the screen so badly that I bounced through a wall and got stuck. This happened several times, with no rhyme or reason. Typically the way out of this was to see a strange message on my screen saying “This game has stopped working unexpectedly” before dumping me to the dashboard. When I activated turbo during these segments, I sped “down” to the normal “fast” turbo speed. Hence, a glitch in the basic movement speed.

So why would having a super-fast sub make the game broken? Well, The Shadows of the Underworld randomly breaks for you, but constantly breaks for the enemies. Most of the time in the game, as soon as a music cue played for monsters, my sub was surrounded by them and taking a pounding. Despite the fact that you are piloting a submarine equipped with a chainsaw, you will end up hulled and sinking over and over again. With only three lives before you have to start over from the beginning, even playing on the easiest difficulty left my bones adorning the bottom of the sea. In fact, there isn’t a whole lot of difference in difficulty because of this. Whether you play on Slightly Weird or Insanely Weird, you are going to get trounced. There is no excuse to put a product that isn’t finished out on the Marketplace, and that is how The Shadows of the Underworld feels. The times when you fight end-level monsters the game actually slows down to show them falling. If you’ve ever played an old DOS game on a brand new PC, you know the feeling. This would have been a much better gaming experience if I just had a way to kill the processor in my Xbox.

Does all that mean there isn’t a reason to keep playing? Well, frankly, yes. There is the option for two-player co-op, but that doesn’t exactly help. That is sad, because more two-player local games are always a good thing. Worse yet is that the co-op is only local, as there is no option to go online. The Shadows of the Underworld does feature dynamically generated maps, so if you absolutely fall in love here, you can expect different maps on subsequent playthroughs.

The only real reason to like The Shadows of the Underworld is the story and setting, and since getting more of that is about as hard as gasping for air in a sinking submarine, it becomes an easy game to put down and look for a different shooter to occupy your time. Even if you take the position that the game was made so buggy specifically to mess with your sanity, it is hard to find much to recommend about this title.

The Scores
Story: Decent
Graphics: Decent
Sound: Enjoyable
Control and Gameplay: Poor
Replayability: Poor
Balance: Awful
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Very Bad
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Poor

Short Attention Span Summary
The Shadows of The Underworld starts out with promise. An eerie exploration below the Antarctic shelf quickly puts you in a fight against entities that were old before man was young. Some neat story ideas, clever graphics, and fun sounds can’t save you from the horrors of the gameplay though. Despite the ability to bring a friend along for the madness, it is hard to find redeeming qualities in this title. The price point of 80 Microsoft points makes things tempting at first, but only those of you with a cultish obsession with the Cthulhu mythos should take the plunge.



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