The Undergarden, from Atari, makes its appearance on the PlayStation Network after gaining some attention as a PC-only title. The publicity material that came with the review copy described it as “modern exploration filled with brain teasing physics and eco-friendly puzzles.” The setting is an underwater world filled with flowers, which your character, a sort of water nymph, can activate to spectacular visual effect.
The goal… is less obvious. Each level is broken down into sections, and it seems that all is necessary is making it from point A to B. The end of the level includes a rating, including the percentage of flowers you managed to make bloom, plus how many of each level’s “special” flowers you found.
The game copies the style of Little Big Planet, focusing on appealing visuals, simple game mechanics, and an easy learning curve. Novice gamers are rewarded with explosive blooms, vivid colours, and audio accompaniment for each small feat within a level. However, despite a number of game tips literally written into the background of the early levels and loading screens, it’s not clear what the player is supposed to do (if anything), beyond randomly swimming around and making contact with flowers.
The game’s minimalist gameplay and over-the-top aesthetic work against each other. Every surface is covered with unpollenated flowers that literally burst into colour from simple contact with your pollen-covered character. Because there are so many of them and they are not discrete units, getting through a level with 90% of your buds in bloom is easy, while getting 100% is a tedious and unrewarding task.
Each stage also has a few special flowers which are hidden and apparently serve no purpose beyond completionism, but the diversity of even the regular flowers prevents these from standing out much. Worse, there’s no notification during the level itself that you have collected (or rather, contacted) something special, making it even harder to keep track. It’s something like if you were collecting coins or tokens in a traditional platformer, but without knowing how many there are, what they look like, or whether you’ve actually “gotten” the one you did find.
There’s so much visual noise no matter what you do, it wasn’t clear to me what some things were for. Pollen activates flowers, and so do “musicians,” which can be carried around with you, but they also seem to have other effects, sometimes changing a flower’s colour, sometimes seeming to make flowers lose their bloom. The musicians themselves also come in different colours, but I don’t know whether the colours represent something. The use of these characters is certainly complicated enough to warrant some explanation, but there isn’t much of one.
The puzzles present are simple — drop some heavy fruit to push down a block, release some buoyant fruit to push up a block, drop an exploding fruit to blow up a block. The fruit in question is always right next to the offending block. Often it is possible to skip the fruit and just push hard enough on the block to squeeze through a momentary gap, which sort of defeats the purpose.
The Undergarden tries to be something of an un-game. The developers compare it to a Zen garden. By focusing on mood and setting, they hope you’ll just enjoy being there. Frankly, I didn’t. It felt like playing through a more colourful level of the original Super Mario Bros., but with no enemies, pointless interactives, and throwaway replay rewards. Simply getting through the level is unsatisfying, but other level tasks don’t seem worth the effort.
Clearly this game isn’t for everyone. I tend to like quirky titles, but I couldn’t stay interested in this one. It is somewhat off the beaten path, and when that’s the case there are bound to be a few people who have been waiting for something just like it. If you’re intrigued, I would suggest trying the demo and seeing where that takes you.
The Undergarden is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB. This game can also be found on PC and Xbox 360.