Film critic Roger Ebert once said that video games never could be true art, a statement he since recanted. Many games have proven Ebert wrong, the most recent of which being The UnderGarden, Atari’s downloadable exploration game that released last week. Here’s a look at the Xbox Live Arcade version of this strangely beautiful game.
There’s not really any prologue or setup for The UnderGarden. It joins the ranks of previous vaguely-premised games like Flower, Braid, and Limbo by dropping you into a weird environment, giving some basic controls instructions, and letting you go. You play as an adorable little creature who floats around underground caverns in what seems to be a watery setting. The creature floats via the left thumbstick and gets speed boosts from the A button.
As you traverse the networks of caves, you’ll encounter green pods that expel pollen when you bump into them. The creature can collect and carry a limited amount of pollen that is tracked with a circular meter at the bottom of the screen. As you guide him past little sprouts along the cave floor, walls, and ceiling, he distributes the pollen and causes beautiful and bioluminescent plants to grow. The plants vary in color, size, and shape, and there are even some plants that instantly bear fruit that you can knock free by bumping your little explorer dude into them.
Different fruits have different properties. Some are heavy and will sink, while others will float upwards. Yet another kind carries a bomb-like explosion effect. You can carry the fruit around by holding the X button to expand a bubble around the little floating creature. Anything caught within the bubble will be grabbed with strings, and the explorer will drag the captured fruit around with him after you let go of X. If you tap X again, he’ll let go of the strings, freeing the fruit to sink, float, or blow up.
Moving the right fruit to the right places and releasing it is the primary mechanic for progression in the game. You’ll need to put floating fruit under levers to push them up, drop heavy fruits on panels to push them down, and throw bomb fruits at rocks to blow away a passage. None of the puzzles are really challenging, but the mechanics work in a flowing manner that actually is pretty relaxing. You’ll move things, float around, and grow flowers until you eventually encounter a portal that will take you back to the hub of the garden, completing your current level.
Going along with the ease of the puzzle solving, there’s not really a way to die in The UnderGarden. The only real opposition you’ll encounter comes from elements of the caverns that will try to steal your pollen. Whenever you lose pollen, you just have to go find another green pod to get some more. No setbacks are huge, and there’s nothing about this game that will have you throwing your controller. The only real challenge, in fact, is in trying to locate all the plants to bloom in order to get 100% ratings on each level. There also are hidden special flowers and gems in each level that can be tough to find or to get to on occasion. It all eventually works out, though, and feels rewarding when you see what all your exploring and pollen spreading has accomplished.
I would be remiss not to mention the musicians as well. Scattered throughout each level are a bunch of cute and monkey-like critters that sit around playing drums, banjos, and saxophones. You can lasso them with your strings just like you do with fruit and drag them through the caves with you. The musicians’ music changes the flora around them, so you can alter plants you’ve already bloomed by pulling musicians near them.
All in all, The UnderGarden is a nice and relaxing break from the usually frantic action you encounter in most video games. It’s a fun and occasionally addictive exploration game, but it’s not a game everyone will love. If you’re looking for an adrenaline surge, seek elsewhere, but definitely check out The UnderGarden if you enjoy zen gaming experiences like that of Flower on the PlayStation Network.