What kind of game do you turn to after a hideously stressful day at work? Do you relieve your irritations by sending round after round of ammunition thudding into a virtual army? Or do you seek out a more zen-like, peaceful experience, one that gently taxes your brain while soothing your eyes with gentle, mellow visuals?
The dichotomy between the popularity of mega-selling shooters like Black Ops (or its uglier sister, Medal Of Honor) and the ambient, floaty world of Vitamin-G’s indie puzzler The Undergarden was brilliantly underlined in its pre-launch trailer. This began with the first-person perspective of a macho army-themed shooter, complete with fast-talking marines yelling about covering fire and rendezvous points, but gradually morphed into a blissed-out, floral midnight world of flowers and gravity-defying space monkeys…
“Make flowers, not war” is The Undergarden’s motto, and you’ll struggle to find a more trippy, gentle and stress-free videogame anywhere else on Xbox Live.
Its objective is simple: take control of your space monkey (which looks uncannily like a horned Teletubbie, or a refugee from its near-namesake, In The Night Garden), and guide him around a network of shadowy caverns. Dotted around its matrix of atriums and interconnecting tunnels are little green growths which, when touched by your space monkey, disperse a haze of pollen.
Hoovering this pollen up, your space monkey can then spread colour and joy to the caverns around him – brush against the walls, and gorgeous, faintly alien-looking fauna will sprout and flourish everywhere.
The Undergarden therefore amounts to little more than a serpentine trip from one network of caves to the next (which are joined together by a central hub area), promoting colour and growth in your wake, and solving environmental, physics-based puzzles along the way. These puzzles involve plucking different kinds of fruit from trees, each of which has its own unique property – some float, others are heavy, while still others explode.
Initially, the challenges amount to little more than gathering a few pieces of fruit and dropping them on a pressure switch, which in turn opens a door a few inches away. Later, however, the puzzles become more taxing, though certainly not to the degree of, say, Portal.
The game has a floating, dream-like feel, like deep-sea diving or drifting around in the depths of space. If you’re old enough to remember the chilled-out, aquatic exploration of Ecco The Dolphin on the Sega Mega Drive, you’ll already have a vague impression of The Undergarden’s atmosphere.
If you choose to, you can scour every inch of the game’s caverns and tease its flora into life – an absorbing pastime in itself – though this isn’t necessary to unlock the next area. There are gems to collect, and little creatures called Musicians to find, too, although these don’t have an obvious impact on your immediate progress, either.
Instead, The Undergarden is like a soothing drink at the end of a hard day, or the videogame equivalent of a back rub, with the addition of psychotropic drugs. Its puzzles are gently taxing, but not frustratingly so, and the emphasis is firmly on exploration and interaction rather than tense button mashing – there are no penalties for mistakes, and no enemy soldiers waiting to blast you at every turn.
Anyone desperate for an outlet for their violent frustrations will no doubt squint at the game in utter horror, and some may find its lack of challenge something of a drawback in the long-term, but anyone willing to sit back and drink in The Undergarden’s gentle, faintly melancholy world will find themselves rewarded with one of the most quietly entertaining indie games of the year.
The Undergarden is available now from Xbox Live Arcade for 800 Microsoft Points.
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