Impressions: The UnderGarden

I tend to purposefully seek out bizarre and relatively off-the-beaten-path adventures when I choose my games. Upon being offered the chance to play and evaluate Artech’s The UnderGarden, I was baffled. What would this strange, colorful world hold for me, and would it capture my imagination the way I had hoped? In a word, no.

Picture a vast, blooming underwater botanical garden awash with plants and life of several calming hues: blues, greens, and other pastels ensuring tranquility and Zen (as the creators would say.) And now envision yourself exploring this cornucopia of life while under the guise of a tiny being that might otherwise be mistaken for a Teletubby. And that’s a small but very important first clue that this seemingly abstract and peaceful experience will quickly fall apart.

As this strange little guy, you traipse along the garden’s surface, luminescent fruits, foliage, and bizarre blooms sprouting up in your wake. Reaching out for multicolored fruits with your odd, tentacle-like “feelers,” then dragging the fruits to a very obvious puzzle-solving location is awkward and slow, just like carrying other Teletubby-esque “musicians” isn’t any better, and in fact their incessant prattle of musical notes superimposed over the ambient garden synths is absolutely nerve-wracking. These musicians, fruits, blossoms, and other myriad “UnderGarden” life is integral to becoming the keen puzzle-solver the game wants you to be, but in the end the game becomes so dull and meandering it’s just not worth it to press on.

It seems to try to desperately mimic games like flOw or even Flower in its deliberately “peaceful” atmosphere, yet has no real story of its own to tell or purpose to speak of. And as you float around, sowing seeds, depositing fruits, and making flowers bloom, you begin to wonder…what’s the point of all this? Just as the loading screens occasionally ponder, “Why is the UnderGarden,” you will wonder, too.

At the very least, this game is competently beautiful. Cool pastels and blazing deep reds and blues can be found throughout the large, ambient landscapes. For the first few times, making life bloom into existence is an exhilarating experience and one filled in rushes of color. Of course, splendid visuals don’t carry the game alone. Perhaps the developers thought they were overlaying the lush graphics with gentle, otherworldly beats, but I found them dizzying, obnoxious tunes that were in no way as soothing as those found in games with a similar premise.

Aside from its very stalwart attempts at being just like the abstract adventures that came before it – a vague, arty production, The UnderGarden barely stands on its own as a simple downloadable title. Iffy camera angles and controls you must fight with at every turn just to solve some simple physics puzzles are more of a deterrent than the discordant rhythms of the Musicians. After playing through the PC version and the home console edition (XBLA), however, I vastly preferred using the PC’s mouse + keyboard controls rather than the Xbox 360’s analog sticks to drag fruits and other beings along with me.

I wanted to find something quirky and strange in The UnderGarden, or at least something entertainingly bizarre enough to keep exploring for weeks to come, but all I found was an ‘UnderWhelming’ copycat of a game with faux mysticism and no real driving force to keep you coming back. It’s a novel spectacle, to be sure, but not quite worth a purchase.

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