It's difficult to know what to expect from a game called The Undergarden. The game's marketing poses the question, "What is the Undergarden?" After spending more than a handful of hours with the latest puzzler from developer Artech Studios, available now from the Xbox Live Arcade, I can confess that I haven't the slightest idea what the Undergarden is - but I like it.
Instead of trying to steal attention from the violent, big-budget titles that this month has already seen released, Artech has produced a game that is clearly following its own vision. The game puts players into the body of a 'water-pixie' for lack of a better word, tasked only with bringing a barren underwater landscape to life, and progressing through various puzzles to complete each stage. But within that simplistic framework, The Undergarden manages to give an immersive and dream-like experience that will remain on your mind long after you've put down your controller.
To get an idea of the look and feel of the game, as well as the music that plays an important role in the tone and look of the environments, have a look at The Undergarden's launch trailer:
The first thought that may cross your mind when you see the vibrant landscapes and whimsical music is that the game belongs to a genre that isn't for you. It's that sentiment that likely kept players from giving Limbo a try, only to pick it up after hearing it so highly praised. If Limbo taught you not to judge a book by its cover, then The Undergarden is worth a look.
The game mechanics are simple enough: you play as an unidentified sea creature with the ability to spread life across stone, and bring flowers and trees into bloom. You do so by gathering pollen and simply moving close to the environment to bring it into bloom. Certain obstacles (levers, switches, etc.) will block your progress, and must be either raised or lowered to continue. In order to move on, different fruits have to be gathered from sprouted trees to either weigh down or lift up triggers within the level.
The most significant factor in the 'zen-like' state the game creates is the music. The background music is almost always a deep, resonant melody, but scattered throughout the different levels are a number of musicians playing a variety of different instruments. Carrying these musicians will add their own music to the overall sound, while also having an impact on the various fauna being brought to life.
The more complex puzzles involve combining different fruits and actions to unlock new areas of the level (especially if you plan on collecting every hidden gem). While combining an exploding fruit with a floating one seems simple enough, the enjoyment of the game comes from bringing different areas of the level to life in order to collect the fruit required. New mechanics are introduced with each new level, adding glowing fruit that allows impassable smog to be dispersed is just one example.
Some of the games coming to Xbox Live seem to be smaller in size, but in this case the game definitely offers a fair amount of replayability for those who wish to unlock all the game's achievements. Besides bringing 100% of the stage's plants to life, numerous hidden flowers and one rare gem need to be found to say a level is truly 'complete.' The game also allows another player to accompany you on your efforts, which made the experience a much less serene one in my case. Where Limbo was just as, if not more enjoyable to go through with a partner, The Undergarden is a game that really offers the most to the player controlling the character.
It's a compliment to Artech to simply say that The Undergarden brought back memories of Limbo more than any other puzzler, and Atari clearly recognized what a unique experience the developer has crafted. My only complaint would be that The Undergarden felt easier, with particularly difficult sections of the levels able to be bypassed completely with nothing more than some secret items sacrificed. The game manages to put the player into a desired mood, but never managed to transcend being a 'game' and bring about a real emotional response.
Overall, some players may find that The Undergarden is more than just a game; it's an experience. It truly is a journey to a different world that immediately immerses you in a puzzle-filled world that never loses its sense of tranquility. My time with the game was enjoyed far more than I would have predicted, and was a welcome change of pace from more high-intensity titles. If you enjoyed Limbo, then you must take a look at this game. Due to the unique genre The Undergarden falls into, I would recommend that you download the trial version of the game before purchase.
This game is definitely worth a look, and you might agree that it's more than worth the price. The Undergarden will soon be released on PSN, and is available for download to PC and Xbox Live for 800 Microsoft Points.