First, a little set-up. We see a lot of games here at G4, some of them good, some of them, well, not so good. And there is a moment in the life of every game journalist where the moons align and they end up seeing a number of lackluster titles, back to back, in the same damn day. It’s a tiring, frustrating thing, relatively speaking – not, you know, in comparison to digging ditches or mining coal – and it was on this kind of day when Atari came into the office, last in a long line of demos, to show off The UnderGarden.
I’d seen some footage of the title out of context and came away fairly flummoxed. It didn’t really seem like an actual game to me, and I approached the demo with one eyebrow firmly raised. But then something bizarre happened: I was genuinely surprised.
The UnderGarden, for lack of a better word, is actualy quite delightful.
I was right, however. It isn’t really a game. It’s a quasi-game; it’s an experience. The UnderGarden wants to take you, my dear, angry gamer, and chill you the hell out, mellow you down after a long stretch of endlessly blasting bad-guys and taking frags to the face in the latest FPS action title. The word I heard most throughout the demo was “Zen” and it’s an appropriate word.
You play as…well…a thing. A cute and cuddly thing. We’ll call it a Teletubby crossed with a Sackboy. And you float around the passageways of something resembling a deep ocean cavern as some incredibly calming, melodic music plays in the background. Now, stop drifting. We can feel your attention waning, seeking out some bit of over-stimulation. Pay attention. Because the next bit’s the crux of the game: You wander ahead, collecting pockets of pollen that you’ll use to bring the environment to life, awakening the plants in a rather stunning display of lighting and particle effects.
There are some basic puzzles, requiring the manipulation of pressure points using various objects found in the environment. There are some wandering musicians that you can grab who serve not only to change the beat of the music, but to distract the small handful of enemies from stealing your pollen. You cannot die. And if you fail, you can always jump back to last checkpoint. There are 14 levels. They are visually stunning.
Those are simple sentences for a simple game. And wouldn’t you know it, The UnderGarden is surprisingly effective. In my time with the game, I found myself engrossed in the beauty of the graphics and the smooth, calming experience. I floated around the world, lighting up the purple, twilight caverns as I brought the spores to life, remaking the environment and trying my best for a 100% completion bonus. I wasn’t angry or stressed; I felt none of the PTSD I commonly feel after a round of Halo or Call of Duty; I felt none of the frustrations of effing-up some casual puzzle game.
The UnderGarden is hard to pin down. It’s got the visual charm of LittleBigPlanet and all the chakra-balancing aimlessness of games like flOw. And it’s gorgeous to look at. Trust us, your instincts may be to wave this game off, but for a quick XBLA/PSN download, its well worth your attention as its release draws near.