These days the video game industry feels louder than ever. Between the explosions going off in Call of Duty and the distortion peddle drowning everything out in Rock Band; it's hard to believe gamers can hear anything at all. Perhaps it's time to unplug from the ultra-violence and the stress of learning to play a real instrument. It's time for The UnderGarden, Atari's relaxing antidote to the stressful world of modern video games.
In The UnderGarden there's no story, just a flying creature that helps grow underground plants and solve simplistic puzzles. Because your little creature can't die, there's never a feeling of urgency or dread. You explore at your own pace and enjoy the game's soothing world until you're ready to move on (or have fallen asleep). It's an interesting concept that won't appeal to everybody, but is a great alternative to noisy action games that get all the attention.
Even though there's not a drip of water to be found in the game, The UnderGarden is bound to receive a lot of comparisons to the Ecco the Dolphin series. You fly around a labyrinthine world dodging enemies, interacting with the lush world and searching out the exits. These are all things you did in SEGA's classic 16-bitter. Gone are the science fiction, replaced by a game mechanic that brings an underground garden to life.
There's not much to the gameplay, you collect seeds and then fly close to the plants and flowers that adorn the cave walls, floors and ceilings. The very act of flying close will force these flowers to bloom, creating a more colorful world to explore. But these plants aren't just for show, you can also grow special trees that sprout useful fruit. Here you'll be able to pick up heavy fruit, fruit that floats and even a spiked plant that might be a fruit, but you won't see me biting down into it.
The idea is to use the various types of fruit to solve simple puzzles and find the way to the exit warp. Beyond finding the exit, the game keeps track of how much of the world you fill in. There are also hidden gems and musicians you can pick up along the way. All told, the game's 15 levels shouldn't take you more than a few hours to complete, though it's going to take a lot longer to max out every level.
While I can certainly appreciate the game's deliberate pace, I was a little put off by how similar every level was. With a few exceptions towards the end, most of the levels are a little too similar for my tastes. And because everything is underground, there's a darkness that kept me from fully appreciating the beautiful garden. The game does attempt to add a new element to the puzzle from level to level, but none of the worlds put up much of a challenge.
It turns out that the monotony of the level designs and the lack of challenge started to get to me after a while. I went from a perfectly mellow mood to being agitated by the seemingly never-ending parade of carbon copy levels. I felt like I got my fill out of the game in the first hour and spend the next two spinning my wheels. Even the game's two-player co-op mode failed to add much to this dark, dreary garden.
Once you've beaten the 15 levels there's not much left to do, unless you absolutely must go back through and plant every last flower. The problem is that The UnderGarden can't decide what it wants to be: It's too simple to be satisfying game and it's too much of a game to be a soothing Zen experience. It's stuck in the middle not working for anybody.
At least the game looks and sounds good. Even though this is nothing more than a simple puzzle game, the graphics are sharp and the little flying character has a lot of detail. You can also dress him up in all sorts of interesting ways, from adding horns to a moustache and top hat. The music is also good, helping foster a soothing atmosphere. The presentation is the highlight of The UnderGarden.
With a solid two-player option and great graphics, it's a shame Atari couldn't deliver a more interesting experience. It's nice to get away from the non-stop shooting and heavy metal music from time to time; I just wish The UnderGarden gave players a more compelling reason to stay.