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Review: The Undergarden

Susan Arendt | 19 Nov 2010 13:00
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Videogames, as a rule, tend to be about conflict, but The Undergarden is completely lacking in that department. There are no enemies to defeat, no damage to avoid, no weapons to upgrade, just musicians, pollen, and flowers. It's a strange little creation, a gorgeous and peaceful puzzle game that will undoubtedly baffle many a player. Its languid pace and lack of demands ensure that it won't find a home in every gamer's heart, but those who grok its strange vibe will come away thoroughly charmed.

The only thing you really have to do in The Undergarden is make it to the exit portal at the end of every level, but that's not really the point of the game. The destination isn't nearly so important as the journey, which in this case involves collecting pollen to make the many beautiful and strange flowers grow. The mechanic itself is child's play - bump into a pollen sac to release spores, float through them to gather them up, then float past seeds embedded in the walls to start the flora sprouting. It sounds easy, but actually reaching all of them will require a little puzzle solving.

The caves of the Undergarden are full of obstacles trying to keep you from reaching your goals. Luminescent green balls not only bounce you around, but also steal your pollen. Wind tunnels send you hurtling helplessly in specific directions. Huge chunks of stone await the proper encouragement to get out of your way. Successful navigation of the caverns requires a lot of exploring and correct usage of the various kinds of fruit that grow in the Undergarden. Red ones act like bombs, floating purple ones can raise rocks out of the way while heavy yellow ones can sink them into the ground, and the white ones glow like tiny little lanterns to banish away the smog. The tools you need to progress are always close to hand and obvious, but the proper way to use them isn't always immediately clear. The combination of environmental hazards and what can be used to overcome them becomes more complex and subtle as the game goes on, matching your growing abilities with challenges worthy of them.

You have a few more things to do in each level than just grow the flowers - there's also a hidden crystal, several hidden special flowers, and a handful of musicians to track down. You can safely ignore them if you can't be bothered tracking them down - finding them won't help you get to the portal. But tracking them all down is where The Undergarden's real challenge lies. At first they're out in the open and easy to reach, but it's not long before you'll find yourself reaching the end of a level swearing you searched every nook and cranny only to discover that you missed just about everything. Getting perfect stats on a stage is immensely satisfying, or at least I assume it is. I've yet to manage better than growing 99% of the flowers even on the early levels, but I definitely take pride in the special flowers, crystals, and magicians I've uncovered.

The musicians are the perfect embodiment of The Undergarden's bizarre charm. They're just another thing to find, and so long as you pick them up once, you can leave them behind without a second thought if you'd rather not try and drag them with you to the portal - a feat often made vexingly difficult by some very narrow passageways. But the more musicians you have with you, the more layered the music becomes, changing from a simple tune to a delicate and nuanced melody that you'll be humming for hours after you put the controller down. The musicians also affect the flora around you, changing its color and shape depending on how many band members are playing at the time. Fiddling with the diminutive music makers is utterly unnecessary, but your visit to The Undergarden will be meaningless if you don't.

Bottom Line:The Undergarden is laid back, gorgeous, and pretty damn weird - the main character is some kind of strange grinning monkey thing and your mission is to grow flowers in underground caverns.

Recommendation: It's definitely not for everyone, but anyone who enjoys well-constructed environmental puzzles or who just needs a break from the fast pace of other games should definitely give it a try.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Susan Arendt leaves no musician behind.

Game: The Undergarden
Genre: Family/Puzzle
Developer: Vitamin G
Publisher: Atari
Release Date: November 10th, 2010
Platform: XBLA, PC, (PS3 to come)
Available from: Amazon

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