The UnderGarden Review
There’s a rich, velvety softness to The UnderGarden. It eases the tension and acts like a full-body massage; only it’s a massage where you’re lying there, enjoying the coaxing fingers while doing a crossword puzzle. Essentially, your body relaxes while your mind works, but the latter doesn’t seem to generate much in the way of stress, or any anxiety that might hamper your oozing tendons and muscles. In truth, there isn’t much to the gameplay and the satisfaction level can fall over time, but Vitamin G’s gentle, sensitive production is like a cross between PixelJunk Eden and Flower. There may be more elite downloadable titles available but after a hard day’s work (plus a difficult wintry drive through ice and snow), it would make perfect sense to slip a fleece blanket over your legs and explore The UnderGarden. We’d recommend some hot cocoa, too. With marshmallows.
The graphics are capable of lulling you into that aforementioned state of relaxation, simply because everything is quite pleasant to the eye. There’s a lot of subtle understatement, which some may find boring, but it really works in this atmosphere. The plants and fruit sway to and fro, vegetation springs quietly to life with a smile-inducing twinkling, and there’s plenty of meticulous level design. Occasionally, one feels as if he’s seen everything there is to see after the first hour or so, but that’s not entirely true. And besides, it’s worth revisiting levels in order to obtain better scores and snag missed items, like special flowers and crystals. Just about every last effect and visual presentation is subtle and…I don’t know, perhaps “friendly” is an apt description, although it might not make much sense to those who haven’t played it. Some of it seems a little too dark, but even so, it’s very pretty from top to bottom.
The audio is a definite highlight because much like the graphics, the music and sound effects serve to enhance the environment. A light assortment of beautifully orchestrated music accompanies most of your actions in The UnderGarden, and that can be anything from snagging special fruits to distributing pollen and watching the dead spring to life. Much like Flower, where a light, beautiful tone accompanied opening petals, we strive to solve our puzzles because we enjoy our musical reward. The biggest risk with this style is letting the understated slip into the almost non-existent realm; if you get stuck in a particular place, the soundtrack and effects seem to disappear into the background. In that respect, the audio element isn’t perfect but because it fits the bill so perfectly, it’s tough to criticize. Let’s just say that without being flashy or especially polished, the sound still manages to impress throughout the surreal adventure.
In order to create a simple yet fulfilling stress-reliever, one must offer an experience that doesn’t really punish. There can be no terrible consequences because that contributes directly to urgency and anxiety. There can only be a goal with a few light challenges, designed to test our problem solving skills without demanding too much of ourselves. For the most part, The UnderGarden hits its mark and provides us with an artistically charged puzzle-solving experience that is both original and even addictive. However, I should probably note that it can only be addictive if you really take to the style; if you don’t find yourself immersed immediately; if you’re not smiling with pleasure in minutes, chances are, you won’t ever connect with this game. It may be a simple production and we may not have to save the world, but it still has to click. The subtlety must still resound within us. If it happens, you’re in for a treat, and that’s the most accurate assessment I can provide.
You play as…well, a little blue something. Not sure what it is, really, but that’s irrelevant. You float about, touching pollen sacks, spreading that growing wealth around, using special fruit to open paths and solve puzzles, and getting some help from a few drum-beating buddies. Hitting the green pollen sacks disperses said pollen, and touching dead plants and flowers will cause them to blossom before your eyes. Some fruits fall to the bottom while others rise to the top, meaning you often have to use a combination of them to open a path to the next area. There are other special things floating around, too, like an explosive bud that destroys annoying rocky obstacles, or large purple hanging balls that, once knocked from their strings, might roll into an advantageous position. You can also try to grab hard-to-get crystals and special flowers, which can sometimes prove frustrating to reach. There is plenty to see and do.
You just move around with the left analog, hold Square to grab stuff, and dash with the X button. It’s a very simple mechanic but then again, it really has to be. It all works very well, with a few minor issues: firstly, although I’m not sure how I’d fix the problem from a development standpoint, you can’t control how many of a particular fruit you pick up. When holding down Square, a circle appears around your weird character, and when you release the button, he will have picked up anything in that tiny radius. And because he can easily overload himself with too many fruits – which means he can’t swim upwards with his load – this can be a recurring issue. Secondly, the camera shifts can be quick and jarring, and sort of interrupt that nice easy pacing. Finally, the control seems just a touch loose, but it’s something to which you can't grow accustomed, and this won’t take long at all, so it's not a significant drawback.
At its core, this is a puzzle-solving game with a few small twists, but the production survives and indeed, flourishes due to its fantastic presentation. This may be more of a subjective, personal observation, but one has to consider the studio’s intentions. It’s enchanting in its own remarkable way and it allows you to play at your own pace; if you want to adopt a completionist mentality and pollinate every seed, feel free to do so. You’ll know you hit your goal when you see that 100% at the end of a level. Plus, you get such a feeling of pleasure when sowing those seeds, and conquering any given puzzle leaves you with the familiar flush of satisfaction. The dynamic, even haunting musical score accompanies every little movement and makes the gameplay a joy. Or, to be more specific, a recurring joy. It does take a little while to get going but later on, when you’re gathering up luminescent seeds that will allow you to traverse dark areas safely; you’ll realize that everything remains intriguing, captivating, lush, and rewarding. Clever puzzles and minor tasks are icing on the cake.
The UnderGarden is a quaint, unique, nicely appointed puzzle adventure with loads of appeal. One doesn’t play it, per se; one experiences it. It isn’t about super tight controls, an engrossing storyline, or intensely challenging puzzles that will tax you to the limits. It’s about huddling beneath a warm, velvety quilt that imparts a very comforting feeling. You can conquer a puzzle, grab a special crystal, and complete a level with all the seeds pollinated, and at the end of the day, you’ll just be happy you participated. There’s a smoothness that permeates everything, from the control to the cosmetics, and it’s not something that we normally see. This isn’t for everyone – it does require a fair amount of sensitivity and artistic appreciation – but if this review struck a chord with you, the game will undoubtedly cause a symphony to encapsulate your body when you start to play.
The Good: Wonderful musical score and pleasant visuals. Setting and theme is beautiful and artistic. Challenging yet not demanding puzzles. Very nice level design. Collectibles up replay value. Soothing feel.
The Bad: Control may be a touch loose. Camera can shift jerkily from area to area. Appeal can wear thin too soon.
The Ugly: Oh, nothing is “ugly” here.
2/3/2011 Ben Dutka