Underground is something that we can only describe as a an oddity of a game, having originally started development as a tool to train medical students for keyhole surgery. I know what you're thinking - surely a game that doubles as a medical tool can't be fun? Well, you'd be wrong - Underground manages to be a quirky and unique puzzle game experience, even if it isn't quite the gem we were hoping to dig up.
Underground is the brain child of Netherlands based indie developer Grendal Games, teaming up with the University Medical Centre Groningen and LIMIS Foundation to bring laparoscopic training to future surgical professionals. The game is set underground (who would have guessed), in a vast subterranean world filled with crystals, crevasses and crippled robots. As one of these robots, it's your mission to guide your mechanical comrades to safety through each level - which are large, maze like puzzles filled with multiple paths and a myriad of hazardous pits and enemies.
Story wise there's not much to go on. As mentioned, you play as a butler robot called SW4NK (yes, and he has plenty of it), trying to escape from the 'underground' mines and return to the owner who possibly threw you away in the first place. It's not very clear. What we do know is that you'll also be liberating your extended robot family in the process - and using a lot of brain power (and surgical skills) to do so.
The gameplay isn't far removed from the likes of similar puzzle titles such as the Mario vs. Donkey Kong series or Lemmings (for the oldies among you (Hey!! - Ed)). The key difference here is that you'll have to use two large mechanical arms (representing the tools used in keyhole surgery) to interact with your robot brethren and the world around them. Each arm is assigned to the corresponding left and right control stick on the Wii U Gamepad, and are 'armed' with drills, welding torches, and claws which can be switched between using the touchscreen.
These tools have various uses, from releasing robots from traps, to creating paths to safety or even activating other useful mechanical objects. New gameplay ideas are introduced across multiple stages to allow the player to get to grips with things, with later levels allowing for experimentation and require combining mechanics in order to progress. For example, later levels introduce a scrap resource, where you have to gather limited resources to literally build your way to the exit while unblocking paths, activating lifts, etc.
Completing each level is simple enough for the average player, but the real challenge is completing levels with every robot intact and collecting every piece of 'Quodranite Ore' - a collectable that's found on alternate paths that you'll have to send one of your 'bots through to collect. It's actually really enjoyable figuring out just how to get to these out of reach areas, especially without accidentally sacrificing your robot buddies in the process. On many occasions we found ourselves figuring out the steps to obtain everything in one go and resetting the level just to achieve a perfect run. Time consuming but satisfying.
The game does have its flaws however. The controls (which are at the core of Undergrounds gameplay) can often be imprecise and jerky, specifically when interacting with objects using the 'grabber' tool. You may find yourself picking up an item only to drop it instantly or being unable to place it accurately. This can be very frustrating, especially while trying to micromanage all your robots before they accidentally destroy themselves.
There are also problems with the robots path-finding AI. They often refuse to use certain open paths, deciding instead to just waddle back and forth. Sometimes a nudge from the welding tool will put them back on target but this doesn't always work, requiring you to change other aspects of the level before they progress.
All in all there seems to be a general lack of polish here. Sound effects have no real punch, and certain audio cues just seem to be missing (when a text box appears for instance). Couple all this with the generally jerkiness of animations and the sub Wii era graphics, and it would be safe to assume the game is suffering from the usual trappings that a first time developer would experience, which isn't the case. That said, it is worth noting that Grendel's development team consists of only 10 people, and considering that none of these are particularly game breaking problems they can be easily overlooked for the average player.
On the plus side, what limited story there is happens to be presented in animated cut scenes that almost evoke the feeling of a silent film, only they're set to a beautiful, fully orchestrated soundtrack, which is one of the high points of the Underground experience. Composed by Tjalling Wijnstra and fully orchestrated by the Dutch Philharmonic Orchestra, the music use complements the actions of the in game characters perfectly (Mickey Mousing for those of you with music degrees).
The sad thing about Underground is that its a little bit of a unfurnished diamond in the rough. It seems like there was the opportunity for something awesome here, but it never quite reaches it. If it had a little more time in development to work out all the kinks then this could have been a great experience.
For its intended purpose as a medical tool, Underground does exactly what it needs to (provided you've shelled out for the additional accessories and controllers) - unfortunately, for the rest of us there are too many bugs and odd little quirks for this be a truly enjoyable title.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Wii U