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Sunday, April 21, 2024

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Undergrave is a charming they-move-when-you-move battler

Our hero, a ninja of some kind, rides a small boat on a black river to the land of the dead.

Undergrave reminds me a lot of Fights in Tight Spaces, which is a good thing. Its a turn-based fighting game where enemies move when you move, so if you move a tile, enemies move a tile, and if they end up next to you, youll be hit – and youve got about eight hit-points so you cant take much punishment. If you die, its back around again from the beginning.

There are no cards in the game, like in Fights in Tight Spaces, but you do have abilities. You can dash, jump, and throw your sword, assuming you have enough action points, and although theyre powerful moves, there are drawbacks to using each one. Throw your sword and you have to go retrieve it, for example, and dash carelessly and youll end up in trouble – you dont get to choose how many spaces you go.

Then again, you can dash through a line of enemies, which is incredibly satisfying. Like a samurai in a bamboo forest, you make your move and then watch as two halves of the enemies bodies slide apart. Its also very satisfying to jump on someones head, killing them if theyre a weaker enemy, while pushing back and stunning enemies around you. Jump is great but its an expensive ability to use.

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Honest to god, I threw the beginning of this fight to show you how easy it is to get hit. Note how stuck I am once the enemies are beside me – I have to Jump to get out. Im much better on my second go around!

These abilities can be modified, too – improved, cheapened – and you can layer on passive abilities that increase your survivability, such as regenerating AP after youre hit. This is the character-building part, then, and you get to do it after every four battles, choosing between two abilities or a heal, normally.

And generally, thats it. Undergrave is quite small in terms of what it offers (its also a tiny 80MB). But good things do come in small packages. Theres a simplicity here thats immediately appealing as within moments youve understood what to do and are playing. But of course, understanding how to do it well is something that requires studying enemy behaviour and getting a knack of what to use and when, and how to play for time when action points are recharging. It can be deceptively tough.

A green play-area, again small and tiled, and again dotted with several enemies and a few obstacles. Move carefully.
What lovely garden. Note how claustrophobic the battles can feel. You need to think ahead because you can be cornered quickly.

I say “deceptively” because its presented in such a low-fi, adorable and sparing way – theres barely any clutter or graphical extravagance – it doesnt seem like it should be mean. Real character beams through. Its almost as though the game were drawn by a young child because of the earnest naivety in how it looks. Its charming.

Underneath that, though, is sophistication. Its in the tight layers of strategy that begin to emerge, and in the way the game moves and behaves. The sword feels nice to swing, the animations have a crunchy feeling to them.

A choice-room in Undergrave, where you can modify abilities or heal up. Three pedestals of pooled blood represent the choices, and show zoomed in on the screen.

A small, tiled, grey play area, on which our pixelated hero and several enemies - zombies and rats and a flying thing - stand.
A moment of choice and a level from earlier in the game – note my overall progression on the pip-line across the top.

What I wonder about is how much staying power it has. I found it a bit one-note after an hour or so. I got to a boss and it was a bit underwhelming after an imaginative start, and I unlocked a new area that looked different and had new enemies, but they didnt really make that much difference.

What it lacks, for me, is another overlapping system to combine with whats there and give that giddy sense of everything coming together on a great run. Think of the relics knitting with your deck in Slay the Spire, or the many modifications you can make to abilities in Hades. Undergrave can feel a bit thin in this area, a bit modest. But perhaps thats the game – a game about steady precision and careful play rather than big, flashy moments. And thats fine, thats still engrossing, but it can also sometimes be a little dry.

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