Review copy provided by publisher
I hate to see ambition trip over its own feet right out of the gate, but it’s all too common a fate with promising indie games. Sometimes it feels like systems and challenges get added to games because they sounded neat, not because they really add to the overall structure of the experience. I went into Undungeon with a lot of curiosity, which was almost immediately buried by an avalanche of game mechanics and world building that didn’t really add anything to the experience of wandering a desert looking for balls. I’m not saying the world building wasn’t interesting or that the game mechanics didn’t have promise, but the shotgun approach to design and the absolute lack of pacing did far more to put me off the game after only a few hours.
I think we’re all familiar with parallel dimension theory, having been made experts through decades of comic books and their resultant movies. Well, Earth in the Undungeon setting has suffered a most unpleasant crunch of dimensions, all of them intersecting catastrophically to shatter reality into a colorful mess of lingering locales. The Void has decided it wants to do something about that, but, being the absolute embodiment of nothing, isn’t really in a position to create anything. That’s where you come in, the Herald of the Void, sent into what remains of the world to recover the cores which anchored reality before it exploded. With those cores, the Void will have the foundations to craft a new reality. Of course, it’s not exactly going to be a straight line to finding such elemental parts of existence.
So that’s the hook, and it’s certainly good enough to hang an indie action RPG thing on. What actually happens when you get into the game is that the Void talks your ear off about your mission, then a floating eyeball talks your ear off about your mission, and then a lady welded to a portal says some vague stuff about life, and maybe they send you to find a ball in a desert that requires talking to a bunch of the denizens there. This is upwards of an hour-long process, because in between the extremely wordy dialogue (displayed in windows pretty much identical to those in Disco Elysium), you’re also being tutorialized on the game’s many, many, many, many systems. You have melee combos. You have a dash. You have a shield. You have throwing knives. You have bombs. You have potions that don’t work like normal potions, you have to drop them and then hit them but then other characters can also steal them by hitting them. You have organs and cores and randomly-generated gear and trade goods and experience that relates to cores and your organs change how all that other stuff works and so on and so on and such.
Complexity in games is by no means a bad thing. I have absolutely fallen in love with games that featured complex gearing or pages of stats or trade routes or other challenges to overcome. What made those challenges work was the pacing of tackling them. Good games start you off with a tiny corner of the mechanics, and introduce new twists naturally once you’ve become familiar and comfortable with your corner. There’s a distinct build-up that prevents you from being overwhelmed and allows you to see how all the different systems interconnect. Undungeon isn’t having any of that, and blasts dozens of menus and systems and mechanics in your face in the first hour. The most galling part of this is that it’s entirely unnecessary, because the first couple hours of the game are set in a vast desert with very simple enemies and few missions more complicated than “go here”.
I knew I was done with Undungeon after I spent 40 minutes reading about combat and inventory management, got huge plot dumps about the multiverse and its attendant deities, and then my first real mission was to walk up to a giant golden sphere and touch it. No combat required, just touch the thing. That was the first step of the second mission too, go to the place with the thing, only to find the thing isn’t there. I did some side missions in between, of course, but those were simply to find some people or talk to some other people, with a few quick battles with scorpions and little desert folks. Nowhere in there did I need to know about the circumstantial mechanics of shielding or the ramifications of different gear choices, because all I was doing was mashing attack and occasionally dodging.
Does the gameplay get more challenging and complicated? Almost surely, but why would I keep going after being bored in a desert for two hours? How much of my time does Undungeon deserve if it’s already proven that it has no concept of pacing? There’s certainly potential here, given the deep lore and colorful, creative graphics. But I don’t even know if the tutorials are over, or how long it’ll be before I get to fights that actually require even a fraction of those mechanics. I should be eager to learn more about the world and my mission, but I find myself dreading the next pop-up explaining something I desperately don’t care about. Please, developers…I know you’re excited about all the systems you can cram into your game, but please learn to pace them out for everyone else.