Explore your inner Zen with The UnderGarden.
Even though there are no roses in The UnderGarden, this game sure does encourage you to stop and smell them.
The UnderGarden suscribes to the philosophy of Zen gaming, where the experience is just as much about exploring as it is “conquering” a level and moving on. You control a creature as it swims and floats through underground caves searching for musicians to bring to the surface. Stomping on pollen plants releases dozens of pollen spores into the air, which you absorb by swimming through them to charge up a meter. As long as you have some juice left in the meter, whenever you swim past other plants they bloom, erupting in beautiful colors and shapes.
Where some Zen games are little more than glorified tech demos (offering more style than substance), The UnderGarden has “stuff to do” as well. As you wind your way through the caverns you’ll run up against various obstacles: rocks blocking the entrance to the next tunnel, fog that’s too thick to see through, pressure-controlled levers, and strong currents that push you in a given direction.
To get through these puzzles, you’ll have to use the resources at your disposal. As the flora around you blooms, occasionally full-fledged trees will sprout up bearing fruit. You can pick up fruits, carry them, and drop them wherever you want, and each fruit behaves in a different way. Some rise like helium balloons (lifting platforms if placed underneath them), while others are heavy and do the opposite (weight platforms down). There are bombs that detonate after a few seconds and lamps that drive away the darkness, too. You can also pick up musicians and bring them along with you, which affects both the music you hear and gives the plants spectacular new appearances.
The UnderGarden looks and sounds great – that goes without saying, but the fact that there’s some structure to the levels as well makes it all the more satisfying. There are hidden flowers and gems to collect, and you’re scored on how much of the world you were able to turn into bloom, which adds motivation to replay the levels. There are three different controls schemes to choose from (keyboard, mouse, or a USB video game controller connected to the computer).
There are a few noteworthy issues worth mentioning, however. The camera has a habit of zooming in or out of its own accord (to show you more or less of the area), and I found myself wishing I could control it directly. The camera is also a problem in two-player mode, since it sometimes the second player disappears off the screen completely. Finally, while a handful of new elements are introduced as you progress, there’s a sense of “sameness” to the look and feel of the levels that is a bit disappointing.
The UnderGarden is a relaxing, non-violent game that strikes a nice balance between encouraging the player to explore and take in the scenery and providing concrete goals to give you a sense of accomplishment. At the very least, give the demo a whirl and check your stresses at the door.