The UnderGarden Xbox 360, PC
Using the incredibly high-tech gaming popularity barometer that is my Xbox Live friends list, it looks like very few of you have played The UnderGarden. And that’s a flaw you really ought to work on.
This might sound like an awkward comparison to make, but if you’re from the UK there’s a good chance that your first few moments with The UnderGarden will remind of you of the work of Ragdoll Productions, the kids’ TV production company. No harm in that, though; show me a man who claims he’s never wished he was a Teletubby or a permanent resident of the Night Garden, and I’ll show you a god-damned liar. Still, as great as it would be to have a game that revolved around nothing but dancing around, eating custard and watching videos of kids, The UnderGarden is a bit more involved than that.
The basic gist is that you float around these vast underwater caverns, collecting spores to bloom flowers and occasionally solving puzzles in order to progress. You can grab objects around you, which then attach to you by means of little strands of silk, with their mass affecting your own ability to move. Anyone who’s played the classic Thrust or any of its countless spin-offs will feel right at home, although here there’s no real penalty for crashing into stuff. Or for doing anything else, in fact. As far as we’ve seen, it’s impossible to die in The UnderGarden. Generally, the worst thing that can happen to you is the loss of your gathered spores if you manage to bump into something distasteful, and even then, another spore-dispenser is never far away.
Some people might think this makes the game boring, but they’re probably the same idiots who made thatgamecompany feel that the otherwise incredible Flower needed that awful level with the knackered electricity pylons. Still, those who want to test themselves are catered for here, with secret objectives being stuffed into every level. Anyone can drift along to the end of the game with relatively little trouble, but if you want to make sure you bloom all of the flowers and recover every secret gem in every level, a bit more thought and effort is required. In other words, they’ve done a bit of a Lego Star Wars with it, and Lego Star Wars was effing great.
The puzzles themselves are purely physics-based to begin with, and involve you pushing things around or gathering fruit – some heavy, some floaty – and using them to affect the positions of massive rocks, switches and the like. Press on a little further, and you’re given exploding fruit, which detonates a few seconds after you drop it, destroying walls and sending objects flying all over the sodding place. Then there’s energy fruit, which can be used to power certain objects. Combine these with the presence of water currents that push you around and allow you to transport objects – placing an exploding fruit so that it gets grabbed by the current and detonates just as it meets a crumbling wall, for example – and you’ve got a nice set-up for a series of clever (if not hugely difficult) puzzles.
It’s not a perfect game by any means, though. The music, while pleasant, is very forgettable, and somewhat ruined if you pick up any of the game’s musicians – little creatures playing various instruments – dotted around the levels. Cleverly, they actually play along with the game’s music, but their contribution to the soundtrack is largely repetitive and their loop-points are painfully obvious at times, with some of the recordings sounding like they’re cutting off mid-note. Sure, games have committed far worse sins when it comes to music and sound-design in the past, but in a game that is otherwise so seamless in its presentation, it’s incredibly jarring.
What also doesn’t help is that, while you’re definitely able to pick up the musicians and carry them around to ‘re-bloom’ the flowers, and you’re definitely told how many of the musicians you carried at the end of each level, at no point are you really told why you should bother with the little soundtrack-ruining bastards. Maybe I’m missing the point, and I’m meant to just enjoy the idea of carrying some little buddies around with me as I go, but they’re a pain in the arse.
The game fails to explain a couple of other things, too. Most notably, the two bars occupying the bottom of the screen. Given enough time, you’ll eventually figure out that one illustrates your progress through the current level, while the other shows how many of the level’s flowers you’ve bloomed. But would it really have killed the developers to tell you that? Although, actually, I’ve just saved them the trouble. Shut up.
Despite its few shortcomings, though, The UnderGarden is an almost entirely pleasant experience, and easy to recommend to anyone who’s fed up with shooting people in the face, or fancies some laid-back, same-sofa multiplayer. It’s not quite as mesmerising as Flower, nor will its puzzles stand up to a game like Braid, but it dares to aim for subtlety and serenity, and we could definitely use more of that.