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Undungeon review: problems with the basics get in the way of a bizarre and beautiful world

Pixel imperfect

Undungeon is a peculiar action RPG set at the end of the universe, in which you play an immortal herald called Void who has been pieced together by God themselves using a primordial stew of hot organs, conscious essence and wet rib cages. Something very complicated has happened to reality, and you’re here to fix it with your swooshing Freddy Kreuger claws and clever dialogue choices.

I’m still not entirely sure what Undungeon is about. The characters, a cast of hovering orbs, corrupted flesh angels and crystal beings, repeatedly try to explain what’s going on, but it never quite sinks in. Collapsing dimensions are causing no end of trouble, that’s pretty clear, shattering into an infinite number of spinning shards that rain like an exotic meteor shower over a scorched wasteland inhabited by nomadic technomancers and acid-spitting scorpions. You’re sent down to the dusty mortal plane to plug everything back in again and reset the multiverse, like an interdimensional BT engineer.

Undungeon looks and sounds unbelievably pretty, from the gorgeous pixel art style to the electronic, lo-fi, Ennio Morricone-ish twanging guitar soundtrack, giving the transcendental science-fiction a discordant Western vibe. Everybody you meet has been plucked from some corner of some timeline and looks completely strange and interesting: a mummified cowboy in a wizard hat who will trade you knives for spare brains, a happy guy that’s just a hovering eyeball peering out of a copper porthole surrounded by a thicket of iridescent brambles.

In terms of what you actually do? Well, you’re taking on your standard RPG quests for various locals, tracking down their lost friends, ferrying fertiliser around, and investigating mysterious meat. You know, typical demigod stuff. For the most part Undungeon is a top-down, loot-centric action game in which you’re armed with a set of claws for attacking, a rib cage for defensive moves, and a mask that empowers your dash ability. You’ve also got grenades, consumable items and arrows, all of which can be swapped out for improved versions, or for new weapon types that come with their own attributes and special effects.

Undungeon

As an undying creature constructed from divine bio-scrap, Void is also customisable on the inside, where it counts. You can upgrade your brain, skin, legs, heart and intestines for more advanced versions that come with permanent attribute boosts. Then there are a whole host of runes and nodes that can be slotted into your core to create a fine-tuned build that suits your preferred defensive or offensive style of play. Undungeon is eminently tweakable, overwhelming you with options and items and crafting mechanics from the outset. Within an hour you have at least 15 distinct arrow types to think about and twice as many grenades. But for all its flexibility, the game is built on some seriously shaky foundations.

"Regardless of how you shape your personal Void, there’s something slightly off about the underlying sauce."

Regardless of how you shape your personal Void, there’s something slightly off about the underlying sauce. Your character has 360 degrees of movement but only four sprites (as in, you only ever appear to be facing directly north, south, east or west) and a single frame of animation connecting them, so simply moving around feels rigid and detached. There’s no acceleration to the movement, so you feel frictionless and aloof. You have no heft. I’m not sure exactly how dimension-hopping arch-beings composed of primordial essence are supposed to move, but I’m fairly certain it’s not like the marble from Marble Madness.

It’s difficult to pin down precisely why Undungeon doesn’t feel pleasant to control, but it’s got a lot to do with having too few transition frames between sprites and a confusing mess of chaotic visual feedback during combat. Most attacks feel weightless, and there are so many different kinds of colourful spells and exploding weapons in play from the outset that it’s impossible to interpret what’s happening during even the most straightforward of fights.

Then there are much harder mechanics to live with, such as how the screen dims and becomes cracked as you near death, making fighting more difficult the worse you’re doing. Enemies gain ranks and become stronger with each successful strike they land on you, which is plainly a back-to-front way of doing things. Your custom organs act as extra health bars, but if you take enough damage they become temporarily disabled until you return to the hub world or reach a save point, meaning the more hurt you are the less of your overall health you can heal using items.

Undungeon

Weapons and items are all limited by a snide stamina bar, which sees Void — who you’ll recall is the immortal servant of an eternal demiurge capable of weaving the fabric of spacetime as though they were knitting a scarf — get out of breath if he swings his arms around more than three times in quick succession. Death is a hard reset and obliterates your progress entirely, returning you to whichever checkpoint you last happened to touch, rolling back any experience points you gained, any equipment changes you made and items you picked up. It’s like this is some avant-garde art project about what it would look like if the bad guys were allowed to design the game’s rules.

Maybe I’ve become coddled by elastic difficulty settings that invisibly dial down the challenge or dole out more helpful buffs when you keep getting hammered, but Undungeon feels obstinate rather than challenging. It’s a game that gets tougher the worse you are, and even when you succeed you’ll still be bogged down by a suffocating tide of too many items and nodes and weapons and equipment to care about.

Less would have been so much more here, and sadly Undungeon’s deep-running problems with the basics get in the way of its bizarre and beautiful world, its lovingly drawn characters and its wild sci-fi storyline.

About the Author

Steve Hogarty

Contributor

Steve began writing about games just like everybody else did, by wandering into a cave and touching the cursed egg. He wrote for PC Zone magazine until it closed, and spent the next eight years confused and roaming the streets, shouting his reviews of Sims expansions through letterboxes on foggy nights.

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