There’s a very delicate balance to be struck when making a game that expects the player to walk in and die on a regular basis.
Roguelikes and their kissing cousins, roguelites, have kind of exploded in popularity in the past few years. At the core level, they’re pretty easy games to make. You give players some way of getting permanent upgrades and then have them pick up a lot more upgrades while in the middle of a run, and then it’s off to the races.
But there’s a lot of fine control to be had there. How big are the permanent upgrades? How fast do upgrades come? How easy is it to recover health mid-run? Do you fall into a quick death spiral or do you have reasonable chances to recover? How many basic options do players have? What sort of build control do you get?
Undermine is very much part of the general roguelike genre, releasing now on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 (it was previously out on PC). How does the game do at balancing all of this? Let’s dig into it.
As you’d expect from the story in this genre, it’s in that sweet spot wherein it’s not an excuse plot but it’s also not meant to be intensely serious. In short: there is a mine. There is a wizard sitting at the top of the mine. The wizard is happy to throw an endless series of mining peasants deep into the mine to solve its various problems.
Several of them are going to die. Actually, scratch that, most of them are going to die. But because there’s money in there and stuff to be done, that’s fine; enough of them are always available to be thrown at the problem, so there’s no need to worry too much about what’s going on. One goes in, dies, and some of the gold that last one collected gets handed to the next miner in. There’s never a shortage of these.
Needless to say, like most games of the genre, there’s a need for a certain degree of tongue-in-cheek humor, and the game delivers in that regard. Each of the NPCs within the mine has some sort of defective and large-scope personality, from the wizard’s cold imperialism to the slight derangement of the blacksmith to Black Rabbit’s rapacious avarice. It’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but it has a nice verve to it all the way through.
I especially like the various death messages as each one of your miners meets their ends. And that will happen a lot, but it also has limits into how far it goes, because of one very central game mechanic… but that’s for the next section.
Let me start with something I quite appreciate about the game – the core upgrade currency for buying stuff is gold, the same gold that you’re normally collecting as you go through the dungeon. This makes me happy. There’s nothing that bothers me more than having a roguelike wherein your gold can go totally to waste because of a lack of shops to spend it in, so I’m quite happy about the fact that I can reliably collect currency toward fresh upgrades just by playing normally.
Anyhow, the core of the gameplay is pretty simple to understand. Diving into the mines, your goal is to collect as much gold as you possibly can. This will involve fighting things, which is done by swinging your pickaxe like a sword or hurling it against more distant foes. One button swings, one jumps, a shoulder button hurls the axe. Dodge attacks, hit enemies, and drop bombs to clear away rocks as you fight your way downward.
Once you die, you drop a certain amount of your gold, then spend the leftovers on permanent upgrades ranging from scaling stat upgrades to health, damage, throwing range, and so forth. Then you dive back down and do it again. You don’t get to customize your appearance, but you can re-randomize it when each random miner spawns, which I think is a nice touch.
The core of this game is thus going to depend on how strong the core gameplay loop there feels, and thankfully for Undermine, the answer is “chunky and good.” Your character moves slowly but has an excellent vertical leap for avoiding damage, which means that a lot of the combat is about not getting overzealous and jumping to avoid taking damage as necessary. Similarly, it’s very easy to collect enough gold on any given run so you’re at least walking into the next run with something better, even if it’s a fairly minor upgrade all around.
Throwing your pickaxe is also just plain fun. I can’t explain to you why I like it so much, it’s a bit finnicky in terms of aiming, but there’s something just oddly satisfying about hurling it at an enemy as you bounce away. It’s not always the most tactically sound move, but it is always fun to do.
So upgrades come frequently enough to feel good but not so frequently that you feel like you’re just going through the motions, enemies are dangerous without being overwhelming, and you generally feel like you have ample opportunity to get further with each run even if you wind up screwing up and getting your ticket punched early. My one minor quibble is that the game starts off feeling a bit slow, but that’s also kind of par for the course with this genre.
I’ve seen people compare the graphics of the game to Rogue Legacy, and while they look wildly different I can also see the rationale. These are big, chunky sprites with loving detail poured into every single one, enemies and characters animate with real heart, and every room has a fascinating bespoke feel to it even as the actual generation is randomized.
Sound effects are also an excellent piece of work. Things make appropriate noises as you chip at rocks, smash crates, or detonate bombs. Everything has a fantastic sense of presentation and character to it, giving you a real sense of joy as you uncover a new enemy and learn what it can do, whether it’s an easy foe or one that will happily plaster the walls with your entrails as you flail hopelessly in its direction.
The music, unfortunately, is a bit on the generic side. It’s not bad, but it’s the sort of fairly standard dungeon-crawling music you’d expect from the game. Still, “not bad” is perfectly serviceable for what it needs to be here.
Moving from PC to console doesn’t seem to have compromised the game’s interface at all, thankfully. Sometimes these things can be far more annoying to navigate when you move to a controller instead of a mouse and keyboard, but the game controls well and seems to have been built with a controller in mind. The mapping of your throw to a shoulder button seemed weird to me at first, but it very quickly becomes a natural part of the overall interface.
At the end of the day, Undermine is almost exactly what it looks like – a very solid and well-presented roguelike game in which you dive into a mine and try to pilfer the treasures within. That’s exactly what it’s trying to be, and that’s also what it succeeds at being with aplomb.
For some people, that’s not going to be enough, just because… well, as mentioned, this is not an underserved genre at this point. It’s not hard to find a variety of roguelikes out there, and I’m sure there are people who will take a look at what the game has on offer and determine that they hardly need another one in their library.
But if you like this genre? Well, you’re in for a solid treat, because it does what it’s trying to do well. What more could you ask for from a game?
Review copy provided by Thorium Entertainment for PS4. All screenshots courtesy of Thorium Entertainment.