With digital distribution hitting its stride, budget gaming no longer means being limited to the crappy "value" selection at your local software shop. Digital storefronts like Steam have allowed developers to take a chance on games that would never have seen the light of day under the traditional retail model, with all of its incremental costs. The result has been a number of games that experiment with traditional modes of play, taking risks to produce an experience that isn't typical, yet can still be plenty of fun. Vitamin G's The Undergarden is one of those games.
If you had to sum up The Undergarden in a single thought, it would probably be something like "It's the ultimate Teletubby acid trip."
Set in a magical underground garden filled with water, the goal of The Undergarden isn't so much to win as it is to experience. You're not here to kill things, but the goal is simply to explore.
The world is initially somewhat drab, but as your miniature teletubby (the main character looks just like one of them, sans the TV in his chest) swims around the world pollinating the underground flora and fauna, vibrant swaths of color fill the screen. Accompanying the plants are musical notes. As each one bursts into bloom, another musical note is hit, causing an organic melody of sorts to play with each swipe of the controls.
Finding the end of each level is ostensibly the primary goal, though it isn't the only thing for you to do. Each level offers a number of objectives, some of which are straightforward, such as pollinating all of the plants, while others involve a bit more searching. For example, finding all of the hidden musicians or discovering all of the magic flower blooms will often require poking your head off the beaten path.
The 14 levels that comprise The Undergarden are all themed — usually after a gameplay mechanic that is required to make your way through the level. The first few levels are straightforward, with later levels introducing some basic physics puzzles.
None of the puzzles in the game are horribly challenging; solving them simply requires a bit of thought on how to use the tools at your disposal. For example, if you find a block that needs to be pressed down, look around for a heavy fruit to drop on to the pressure plate. If you need to destroy a crumbling wall that is blocking your path, look for a red exploding fruit. Given that the game tends toward the simpler side, chances are good that any necessary items can be found in the immediate area.
Visually, The Undergarden is sharp and vibrant, with the plants swaying to the underground currents. Colors run the gamut, with all ends of the spectrum represented. To say that watching someone play The Undergarden is almost as enjoyable as playing it is not an exaggeration. There is something soothing about sitting back and watching the fantasy world come to life.
Control-wise, the PC version of The Undergarden supports both a mouse and keyboard control setup as well as the Xbox 360 controller. Although the mouse and keyboard combo is sufficient, after playing with the Xbox 360 controller, it's obvious that the game was designed with the console in mind. If you have one handy, be sure to use the Xbox 360 controller with the game. Trying to use the mouse and keyboard just doesn't feel as precise.
In addition to the single-player mode, The Undergarden also supports local co-op. On the PC, it supports mixed controls, so one player can use the mouse and keyboard while the other uses an Xbox 360 controller. When playing co-op, the objective is the same; it's just that there are now two of you working together.
While the concept of co-op play is great in theory, when it comes to practical implementation, The Undergarden stumbles a bit. The biggest problem is that if the second player gets too far away from the first, he or she is automatically teleported back to the first player. When you're teleported, you drop everything that you're carrying, and the teleport happens anytime you move off-screen. Given the game's nature to zoom in and out of the map, this can happen without notice.
For example, there is more than one place in the game where the camera zooms in for dramatic effect. That's all well and good in the single-player portion, but in co-op, that camera zoom can be enough to force your partner to teleport. The first time it happens, it's amusing. The 10th time it happens, it gets annoying. After a while, it's easy to get the impression that The Undergarden was tuned for the single-player mode and that co-op was something of an afterthought.
The only other issue worth mentioning is the occasional problem with pathfinding. When you are navigating solo, your miniature teletubby is pretty nimble, but when you're towing fruit or one of your musician friends, it's not quite so simple. The game has a number of tight spaces, so you'd expect those in tow to go with the flow. Instead, it's all too easy to have the entourage get caught on a corner, forcing you to either slowly maneuver into the proper position or just hit the boost button and try to get through with brute force.
Despite its flaws, The Undergarden is both accessible and enjoyable for all types of audiences. Whether you're a hardcore player looking for a break or a causal gamer wanting to try something new, this is one experiment in gameplay that's worth checking out.
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