I’ve been playing Undermine a lot. It’s a fun game, and one I really committed myself to in ways I often don’t when I’m reviewing a game. With Undermine, it’s been a bit of a task to see everything. Okay, “task” isn’t entirely accurate, more like “grind.” It’s been a hell of a grind to see everything, and that’s not something I’d usually say about a roguelike game. Usually, in a roguelike, the few power-ups you find along the way can help you, or define your run. In Undermine, powering up is important, and it’s not just limited to power-ups found on your run, but also about levelling up your peasants between runs.
Undermine is a top-down roguelike. In it, you play a series of peasants, one after the other, as they come streaming down into the mines to defeat the devious denizens therein. Its usual fare, and at first, seemed like a pretty basic style of roguelike. It has all of the hallmarks: procedurally generated floors which you explore room-by-room, NPCs to find and rescue that meet you back at the home base, and power-ups to purchase that will show up in your subsequent playthroughs. At first, it felt a little too basic—until I got a few hours in, and realized Undermine isn’t necessarily about boss rushing, but about building up the power of your peasants. For me, that ended up looking like a lot of grinding—which, for me, isn’t so bad.
I usually don’t mind grinding in video games that much. I find it cathartic, and I like to put on an audiobook or watch a TV show and grind away. Undermine doesn’t require grinding, necessarily, but it’s a difficult game, and every little bit helps. In Undermine you find or mine gold as you go through the levels. Gold doesn’t stay on the ground where it falls, however—little globule-like creatures called pilfers will try to snatch it for themselves. But gold is the currency de jour in Undermine, with a second currency used to craft items and potions that will show up later in your game—and the twist of being able to carry that item into your next run when it’s crafted.
The feeling of combat and even movement is important in a game like Undermine, and Undermine’s style of combat is a little boring, but serviceable. It’s just so basic—you can move, attack, and jump, and that’s about it. Jumping in a top-down game can be a bit problematic, but Undermine handles it well enough. While you can use jumping to dodge projectiles or jump over spikes, I would have given up the ability to jump for a dedicated dodge. The combat isn’t bad, but it’s certainly one of Undermine’s weaker aspects, and having a traversal ability or a dodge move would have spiced it up a ton. And while there are power-ups that can be acquired, Undermine often lacks the type of synergistic upgrades and abilities that make games like The Binding of Isaac so exciting. But overpowered combinations, while possible, seem to be much more rare in Undermine, and I had a large amount of boring runs that were mostly just opportunities to get gold.
While Undermine might not have the best combat, its character progression is extremely compelling. As I mentioned earlier, I sometimes enjoy a bit of a grind, and that’s what I found myself doing most of the time in Undermine. I found that I was playing to acquire gold to get my next upgrade more than I was actually playing to win. You do lose an amount of gold upon death, but there are upgrades and items that help you retain more once you die. Soon I found myself ten hours in and only into the second floor, not even trying to earnestly progress. It’s a grindy game loop, but it’s a damn compelling one. It feels like there’s always something to spend one of your two currencies on, especially gold. And since upgrades are permanent, sometimes it feels like it’s more important getting that hoard of gold back to the hub than actually progressing through the dungeons.
Undermine doesn’t force you to face the dungeons alone, thankfully. While there isn’t multiplayer, you are able to bring a familiar with you. By default, you start with the canary, which helps you pick up gold, but there are 11 total familiars, each with their own ability. Some help you find secrets, while others will help you fight in combat. You find different familiars on runs, and some can be quite rare. Familiars also gain levels as you play, becoming more powerful and even gaining new abilities as you two go about your adventure. Once your peasant is defeated, your familiar goes back to the hub—and loses all its acquired levels.
Undermine is an easy game to recommend, even if it does have a grindy feel to it. I’m not quite done seeing everything Undermine has to offer, and I’ve been playing it for about two weeks now. There’s a ton of game there, and lots of room for replayability. It’s not as dynamic or fast as games like Dead Cells—it’s more of a slow burn.
Undermine is available now on Steam.
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