Colourful floatiness abounds!
It has to be said that I am an equal-opportunities gamer. I will happily try my hand at any type of game, from any genre, on any platform. In that respect, nothing really surprises me. I have played the good, the bad and the ugly.
But when it came to writing about The Undergarden from Atari on XBLA, PSN and PC, I found myself having problems. Words such as “twee” and “quaint”, and even “peaceful”, were floating around in my mind, which was in it’s most zen like state since I last tried to give up smoking with the help of Paul McKenna. For some reason I had never played a game of this type before, and it has left me feeling unsettled. Had my gaming life of driving fast cars and shooting people been wasted? Should I really have been playing with flowers or pretty lights? I’m confused…
The Undergarden is a floaty puzzle game based in a magical underground world. The player takes on the role of what looks like a fugitive from “In The Night Garden” (I don’t really want to incriminate myself, but I believe it could be Makka Pakka’s long lost sibling) and must work their way through the games 14 levels. In what could well be the world’s smallest tutorial it is explained that the player must guide our floaty friend into a small green spongy thing, which then gives off a load of pollen. The player then collects this pollen up and, as they move around the level, the pollen brings to life all of the wonderfully colourful plantlife that has, until now, been dormant. The result is a technicolour trip as the player attempts to pollinate all of these plants.
Getting from the beginning to the end of each level is not that straight forward though. The levels are filled with puzzles that, whilst never particularly taxing, increase in difficulty and complexity. A lot of the puzzles require the use of fruit that can be harvested from the various trees that sprout up along with the plants. Different fruits have different properties and uses. Some fruit may be lighter than air and can be used to lift barriers, whereas other are heavy and will weigh objects down. Then there are fruits that will explode, electrocute and enlighten, each with their purpose when it comes to finding the exit. Then there is the environment itself trying to make our pollen-collecting hero’s life more difficult. Rogue gusts of wind may well blow our hero in certain directions, or wheels may demand to be turned before progress can be made.
Then there are the musicians, strange little creatures whose purpose I have yet to fathom. Picking one up results in all of the passing plantlife seeming to take on even more life than from the pollen. If you manage to find the whole band and dump them together, their tunes combine into something much more enjoyable. But if you ask me why they are there, I could not tell you.
But there are not just the musicians to find, the player can also spend their time trying to find the crystals and special flowers that are hidden in each level. It is not essential to find these, but it all adds to the complexity of the game as they are hidden quite well on some of the levels, and they also unlock various costume style goodies for our little friend.
The game does a damn good job of being a relaxing experience, with very little peril to be found. Visually the game really does look trippy, with it’s fluorescent flowers and ambient backdrops adding to the calm, slightly out of body enjoyment of this world. The sounds also add to the atmosphere, with strange little “pings” and the tuneful warblings of the Musicians. All in all, it is just really pleasant and laid back.
But maybe that is where a problem comes along. As is evident from the games rather lacking tutorial, not a lot is explained to the player. It is more or less left to the player to work out what the hell is going on and what they need to do. In fact, it was a good while before I stopped asking myself “why”, and the reason I stopped was not because I had found out why, but because I was too relaxed to be bothered to ask anymore. But I would like to know what the point of the Musicians is.
The Undergarden is a fairly unique experience, and one that can be enjoyed on the understanding that it is not your usual adrenaline filled game. It is fairly easy, I would guess so as not to ruin the buzz, and as such is ideal for the younger gamer as well as those looking for peace and tranquility from their gaming.