Undungeon is a vibrant breath of fresh fantasy sci-fi air that gives you indie-triumph vibes for the first few hours but then fails to maintain its momentum as its Action-RPG gameplay stales, making you wish that it would have ended a whole lot sooner.
Perhaps it had an excuse – it started as a Kickstarter project – and like most video games that go that route, it had more than its fair share of development struggles, and as such the game was much different than what was originally promised.
Standard video game developments aren’t normally laid bare to the world, but since we have the luxury of peeping behind the curtain, we can see that the original scale of the story and its seven worlds – which were supposed to be explored by seven different characters instead of just one – was kept in place at the expense of the gameplay, which was adapted, but reduced in size and stretched out of the entire length of the game.
Outside of the gameplay, the game is nicely polished, with a beautiful animated pixel art style with great details from swirling winds to personality-infusing character movement. But don’t take my word for it, the nominations for visual design awards are as deserving as they are impressive. Furthermore, the world is an atmospheric one with drab music complimenting the harsh and unforgiving existence after The Shift, an event that merged seven different versions of the earth – each of which is accessed as progressively unlocked outer layers on the map – and another which is sucking all known existence into an abyss.
The sci-fi story throws you in at the deep end from the go, providing a highly detailed conceit that makes you law of the land, and as a creature named Herald, you need to save what’s worth keeping in the current world, and transfer it to another, more stable world.
To do so you need to activate cores in each world/outer layer of the map to achieve your goal, but your character has no idea about the world or its inhabitants, and together with a fog of war greyed-out map, it forces you to explore to find those who can help you on your way.
Alongside the main players in the story, these side quest characters are as important – if not more – to making you feel like the ultimate authority as nearly all the locals have urgent issues that require your help. Playing judge, jury, and executioner (if you are so inclined) has you making life and death decisions on the regular and it’s implemented excellently, constantly having you at pause when trying to decide who to help and how to help them, especially when the game will sometimes intentionally hold back pertinent info, but will provide just enough background on the characters to make you feel involved – and at fault for a bad decision.
The only issue with this is that every character’s own accessible area on the map is almost identical in design and requires increasingly longer loading screens as the map expands. Not what you are looking for, in a game that grows too long in the teeth.
The world-building, the characters, and their relationships as well as the decisions that relate to them are so well written and the quality in which the narrative is conveyed is so pronounced that it makes the shortfall of the gameplay that much more disappointing.
Sadly there’s a very specific moment of frustration when typically it should be one of the most enjoyable parts of a game. When I thought I had reached the end of the journey as you’ve not only ‘completed’ your original goal, but you have gotten to select who of the side characters you wish to bring over to the new reality, I breathed a sigh of relief until I realized that it wasn’t over, I was only halfway through – there is an entirely new world you need to save and are forced to play yet more of the same monotonous action.
By itself, the action is not heinously bad and there are features that are fun and are implemented well. From small details such as being able to locate all your misaimed throwing knives dotted over the map, to the great animation of attacks and even a clever ‘live’ menu that allows you to change which items and equipment you wish to use immediately in battle.
Another reason why it’s unable to last the distance, though, is that there are few enemy types, and despite their own strengths and weaknesses, you are mostly going to be fighting bandits and unless you are surrounded by a huge group of them, it’s far from a challenge.
For the first third of the game, the RPG upgrades, the equipment, and the battling system all develop in sync with each other and make for an intriguing title that I was enjoying, but not long after you stop receiving new equipment and upgrades, the grind caused my enjoyment to fall off a cliff and every monotonous aspect of the game and the inability to skip them, brought a hefty dose of frustration.
Undungeon is a story of unrealized potential, with a well-written fantasy sci-fi story and stunning visuals, it could have allowed this indie Kickstarter title to really make some noise, but its repetitive action can’t stretch to meet a running time that’s double the length it should be, allowing tedium to settle in long before the end.