The Shadows in the Underworld
Developer: Polaris Game Studios
Available On: XBLIG
Co-Op Mode: Local (2 players)
Price: 240 ($3)
Demo w/ Co-Op Available: Yes
H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythology has certainly served as the inspiration for its fair share of games over the years, yet I’ve always found it rather surprising how infrequently it’s been used as a direct source for games. The survival horror and shooter genres’ fixation on zombies, or zombie-like foes, has lead to what can best be felt as a saturation of the market and undoubtedly leads one to wonder, “surely, there must be more.” Thus, when I was perusing through the available co-op indie titles for this week’s discussion and came across The Shadows in the Underworld, I was pleasantly surprised to find a game that melded together two great tastes that, amazingly, taste great together: a PixelJunk Shooter-type gameplay and Lovecraftian horror.
The game begins with your piloting a submarine exploring an underground cavern in the Antarctic for new oil supplies. To aid in your search, the sub comes equipped with a special light, which not only illuminates the briny deep, but also allows you to see special objects that react to the electromagnetism and other science-y stuff. Clearly the expedition was expecting some trouble as the sub also has an inexhaustible supply of torpedoes that are limited only by a heat meter (which renders your sub useless when it reaches its peak). The sub’s light is also used to aim these torpedoes. In addition to the torpedoes, the sub has a chainsaw that extends from its bottom/front, and the ability to boost (which also counts against the heat meter).
As you begin to explore the underwater depths of this mysterious cavern, you’ll be faced with foes sporting tentacles, skulls, and other bizarre designs, all of which have a slight biomechanical design. Quite frequently, defeating these Chthonic foes is a requirement in order to progress to the next part of the level (which is all randomly generated so don’t expect to just “learn the lay of the land”). You also have a constantly running timer, i.e., air supply, to ensure you don’t spend too long dilly-dallying. Fortunately, destruction of these unknown foes yields artifacts that refill your air supply, help repair some of the damage that’s been inflicted upon your craft, or even permanently boost different aspects of the sub, such as its armor or torpedo damage. These boosts are shared between two players for a co-op session so there’s no mad dash to see who gets the boost. Progress through the levels is also saved so you don’t have to sit down and play through them all with your 3 lives in just one go.
Dark and scary with red glowy things... Just as Lovecraft depicted
The other benefit to the saved progress is that The Shadows in the Underworld is hard. Even on the easy/medium difficulty levels, you’ll find yourself constantly getting surrounded by enemy ships quite suddenly with only a brief couple of seconds in which to react in order to avoid your untimely death. (You do have a health bar, but getting pounded by 7 enemies at once pretty much means instant death). That boost comes in handy, as the most common strategy in situations like these is to blast a couple torpedoes straight ahead while boosting and hoping you make it out of the closing noose. The game sports an enemy-director AI to help randomize these encounters, which I believe, but it does tend present the encounters in a similar way each time, which can be tedious. Having a friend along to help definitely has its benefits, provided you’re both on the same page with how to get out alive.
The Shadows in the Underworld is a pretty nice package that’s neatly presented overall; the story is pretty interesting, the enemy designs are pretty well polished, and even the music is good. The game’s one sticking point is that the encounters tend towards a repetitive nature and can be a challenge even for two players. Still, the game is enjoyable as a whole and a great addition to the game library of any couch co-op enthusiast.
The Shadows in the Underworld is For: Gamers that enjoy Cthulu mythology, RPG-lite elements, and difficult games
The Co-Op Experience: Each player controls his or her own sub that can be upgraded further through artifacts and icons dropped by enemies/discovered during the game; upgrades are shared and progression can be saved