Cool Things Come In Indie Packages
If you want to find the most artistic, original, and just plain bizarre games on the planet, you need look no further than independent game developers. Sitting quietly in the shadow of the big-budget A-list titles that flood us every year, indie titles are quietly nudging the industry forward in bold new directions. If you’re bored to tears with the latest military shooter or yet another tired real-time strategy clone, take heart in the fact that small developers and publishers are doing great things – even if they don’t always get the recognition they deserve.
The UnderGarden is a perfect example of the unassuming titles that never make the Holiday Buying Guides, and won’t be making headlines on the news for selling umpteen-million pre-orders. However, those willing to take a chance on it may find themselves in an enthralling adventure; albeit one which is more likely to lower your blood pressure than pump your veins with adrenaline.
The UnderGarden shares a lot of traits in common with a genre that has become increasingly popular on mobile phones and casual game outlets. So-called “Zen games” tend to be filled with relaxing ambient music and hypnotic visuals. Gameplay is typically very simple, designed to let players just turn off their minds for a few minutes and engage in some mindless fun. While Zen gaming isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, the success of other Zen games such as Osmos, Zen Bound, and Flower can’t be denied.
In the UnderGarden, players assume the role of a little creature whose job is to pollinate the flora on each level. This fellow, which sort of resembles a noseless teddy bear, can swim through the game world in any direction with a simple arrow key or mouse click. The game world consists of a cave-like network of tunnels and rooms filled with luminescent plants. While not immediately apparent, the game seems to take place underwater based on the physics and wavy fronds of the aquatic-looking plants.
The amount of pollen your creature is carrying is denoted by a small meter at the bottom of the screen. Pollinating plants happens automatically as you swim over them, and pollen-producing pods scattered around the levels will let you refill by giving them a tap then standing over them. The visuals as you pollinate are one of the game’s biggest charms. Leaves and fronds unfurl in bursts of color, turning from dark seed pods to brilliant bursts of light.
The game isn’t just about swimming through tunnels, however. Blocking your progress are numerous obstacles that will require the use of various types of fruit to overcome. Fruits grown on trees that have had their surrounding blooms pollinated, and are typically within easy reach of the puzzles that require them. Fruits come in various flavors. There are fruits that sink (good for weighing down floating obstacles), fruits that float (good for lifting obstacles up), and even fruits that explode (good for blowing up those obstacles that won’t move up OR down!) Some levels also include creatures called “musicians” which have special powers. Figuring out their uses will allow you to advance through more complex levels, and you’ll get visual and auditory feedback as you carry them near the flora of the game world.
To use these fruits and musicians, your creature can utilize a grab command. Holding down the right mouse button grabs items, which will stay held until you release them with a right mouse tap. The control mechanism is simple and by and large works well, though it can be tough to make precise grabs when a lot of objects are on the screen. The other controls are also simple – left mouse click to move (or keyboard arrow keys), and a boost function (triggered by holding down the left mouse button over your creature) which allows you to propel yourself quickly.
A Calming Influence
The UnderGarden utilizes a minimalistic, soothing soundtrack that fits right in with other Zen games. Playing the game with the volume turned up and taking the time to appreciate the fantastic visuals is a blissful experience. This is key, because The UnderGarden is certainly more focused on relaxing brain cells than taxing them. Despite the abundance of stone blocks, weights, levers, and fast-moving currents that stand in the way of your goal, the game never becomes that difficult across its 14 levels.
A quick run through each level from A to B should only take you 4-5 hours. However, there are some bonuses to keep you trying for perfection. A flower meter at the bottom of the screen tracks your pollination percentage, and achieving 100% can be difficult on the first run through a level. There are also special flowers scattered throughout the stages that are typically in hard to reach areas or that may require some backtracking. Achieving these bonuses can unlock new costumers for your creature, though the satisfaction of “clearing” a level completely is reward in and of itself.