This holiday season is packed full of quality games. Most of these games runneth over with violence. Where is all the love? Vitamin G Studios is offering a break in the mayhem with a beautiful 2D puzzle platformer called The UnderGarden. In this game your weapons are pollen, your tools are fruit, and the main enemy is an uncontrollable camera.
You are introduced to the UnderGarden by descending into a brightly colored hub level. Your avatar is some form of imp or baby demon. Choose whichever relaxes you more, and go with it. The first thing you will notice is the freedom of movement. The left stick will guide you anywhere. Your imp will rise effortlessly and fall so slowly it will seem like you are hovering. There are only two other functions on the controller. You can pick up items by holding one button, and you can charge movement for a dash by holding, then releasing, another. That's it.
This game embodies 'casual'. There are no real enemies. There is no narrative. The first available level is simply titled: "Welcome to the UnderGarden." This level will introduce you to the mechanics of the game. You step on a pollen sack to fill your pollen meter. Use the pollen to grow flowers. Move around the level to grow more flowers. There are pollen sacks everywhere, so you have no worries of running out.
You'll know if the UnderGarden is for you in the first five minutes, maybe even the first minute alone. Upon entering the the opening level from the hub you will hit a pollen sack, causing the flowers around you to bloom in a beautiful display of color and sound. This is when you will instantly think the game is awesome, or simply, 'meh'. You float through the level, blooming flowers to the soft sounds of new age music.
Here, the blue imp is carrying a tiny musician with an adorable little bass.
Occasionally you will run across musicians. These little creatures can be picked up and carried, their particular instrument adding to the soundtrack. You can hold more than one at a time, adding even more instruments to the music. When you are carrying a musician the plants react, growing larger when you draw near. There doesn't seem to be any purpose for these little guys, other than to add light and sound to a game that is simply based on experiencing light and sound. You apparently are scored on whether you pick them up or not. It's all just so much fluff. Which in this case isn't a bad thing.
Eventually some puzzle elements come up. Through early levels these puzzles amount to either triggering switches or moving a gear. As you pollinate flowers you will also grow trees that bear fruit. This fruit takes the form of heavy, floaty, or explode-y. There are some other types later on as the puzzles become more complicated. Herein lies my major grievance. It is only in the later levels that the UnderGarden really comes into its own as a puzzler. Nothing is mind-bending, but at least the puzzles become more advanced than 'put heavy fruit on pressure switch on floor, let floaty fruit lift switch on ceiling.' The game would have greatly benefited from becoming more complex early on. Even for the casual gamer, the game is far too easy for too many of the beginning levels.
At the end of each of the fifteen levels you are scored on the percentage of total flowers pollinated, the number of musicians carried, the number of special flowers bloomed, and whether or not you found a secret gem in the level. Online Leaderboards are available for each level and overall score. It can take anywhere from ten minutes to half an hour to clear an area, depending on how fast you want to rush through. If you are trying to blast through a level, you are missing the point. Also, with each completion you unlock new colors, horns, or accessories for your imp. I went with a blue body, red horns, and a top hat.
We don't condone this, but this game may be better if you are not-so-sober. (It is. MUCH better.)
You can check out the above video to get a feel for what you are getting into. As the trailer claims, you can solve puzzles with a friend. Unfortunately, the second player is little more than along for the ride in co-op mode. To access it, simply push start on another controller when you are in the hub level. It is not exactly drop in/drop out, but it is pretty close. Couch co-op only, friends.
This isn't a fully realized co-op mode; as in games like 'Splosion Man, where there are actual co-op levels designed for multiple players. The UnderGarden simply offers an opportunity to play the single player campaign with a friend. The screen stays focused on Player 1. If Player 2 strays or falls behind, they just warp back to Player 1. There are a few opportunities where having a second player prevents having to make a second trip to gather more fruit, but it really doesn't add anything to the experience.
The level progress doesn't save for the second player, either. We played through the first few levels co-operatively, both with Xbox LIVE Gold accounts. Later, when the second player started up a game under their own account, none of the levels were unlocked, even though they could view their own completion scores for those levels. Online Leaderboards also have a co-op section for each level and overall score.
Aww. The baby demon spawn are wearing their Christmas colors.
There are two minor flaws that can become big annoyances. One is the camera. It zooms in and out on its own, sometimes giving an aggravating view. A player controlled zoom function would have been optimal. With the easy going nature of the game, and the lack of any ability to die, this is an irritating, but minor, issue.
The second gripe is for all of the completionists out there. As stated before, you are scored on the percentage of flowers pollinated. You can see your pollination progress in a meter at the bottom right of the screen. Nothing will ruin a nice relaxing tour of the UnderGarden like getting to the end of the level and realizing that you have missed some flower somewhere, and the levels get sizeable toward the end. A few don't allow for back tracking, either. Some would say "Relax, this adds replay value, you can float through again." To those people I would say, "Shut up, hippie. I bloom 100% or I don't bloom at all!" At least I would, if I wasn't so damn mellowed by the game.
I'd like to compare this game to one of the better 2D puzzle platformers that has come out recently, Limbo. Limbo was incredibly simple yet invoked a narrative and a feeling of loss and dread from a minimalist score and graphics that were little more than shadows. The UnderGarden is the anti-Limbo. No narrative develops, or is even offered. Where Limbo managed to set a dark and brooding mood, the UnderGarden is a light and fluffy affair, full of sound, color, and well...nothing. It is, however, good at what it does. It is a simple, relaxing experience that can appeal to many different types of gamers. It is a great game for the casual gamer, or the beginner, or for the hard core FPS player who simply needs a break from his latest knife kill streak. Float around with a friend to relieve some of the stress this holiday season. It will make you feel better, even if you don't know why.
The UnderGarden is available now on Xbox LIVE Arcade for 800 MSP, or on the PC for $9.99. It is coming Q1 2011 for the PSN.