STAFF REVIEW of Undungeon (Xbox One)

Wednesday, December 22, 2021.
by Adam Dileva

Undungeon Box art Normally I do a bit of research about a game before I delve in, so that I have an idea of what to expect. I decided to not do that this time with Undungeon, starting the game completely blind, unsure what to expect. What I got was a sci-fi pixel art adventure with a surprising amount of narrative and lore, almost too much at times, with some addictive yet challenging combat gameplay. Developers Laughing Machines actually had a Kickstarter to make this a reality after many years in development, and years later it’s finally come together and released for console fans as well, including Xbox Game Pass. With a really interesting story, Undungeon is going to demand your full attention if you want to make any sense of it, something I found hard to do with just how deep the narrative is.

Multiverses seem to be the new hot thing, so Undungeon delves into this idea where several parallel universes of Earth suddenly merge together at once, causing a cataclysmic event dubbed the Great Shift. This is of course a universe changing occurrence that also effected time and space causing monsters and creatures to suddenly appear, sometimes displacing homes of where tribes and people once lived. You are the Herald of the Void, part of a secret organization that is tasked with trying to restore peace and order across the chaotic lands who possess a myriad of powers and abilities. Decisions you make, who you help and how you interact with people during your journey will have consequences and outcomes based on your choices. As a Herald, you were actually designed by god-like beings, deciding outcomes of the new universe based on your actions.

If you enjoy reading a lengthy book full of plenty of dialogue and backstory, Undungeon will not disappoint. You’re thrown a ton of information right from the start about the inhabitants, world, the Great Shift, gods and much more. How you’re supposed to take this all in so quickly and know what’s going on, I have no clue. It’s quite confusing and a huge ask to delve into the deep end with so much lore right away, but there’s more than enough to take in if you enjoy that aspect. I was initially following along, but to be honest, it eventually lost me once I started talking to different races and people, becoming quite convoluted.

As you explore the lands, you’ll come across numerous characters, merchants, creatures and more. Maybe if you side with certain characters or raise enough karma, they’ll help alongside your quest as well. The world itself is quite big, but instead of a traditional overworld map that you explore, you instead choose which area to go to and it’ll show Herald walking there, reminding me somewhat like Zelda II's map, as you’ll also see little monster and helper icons along the way.

There’s plenty of places to explore, not just the main mission areas, full of items, merchants and secrets. Your main headquarters though is in Herald’s Undercover Bay, better known as H.U.B. This is your safe area between dimensions where you can speak to people that you’ve recruited, trade with merchants, craft and more. While Herald will be engaging in combat often, you’re going to have to grasp how the character customization works, as the mechanics are a bit different than most games. While you’ll find new weapons and equipment along the way, you actually equip and can upgrade your body parts like brains, hearts, eyes and more. Organs come from defeating enemies or crafting new ones once the option is unlocked during the course of the story.

Your Core though is your main piece of equipment/organs. This is essentially how you create different ‘builds’, as each different core has different slots that can be unlocked and filled with runes, adding bonuses and other features. Each different type of Core upgrade is color coded as well, and you can even combine similar runes to make for bigger passive increases when slotted in. It takes a bit of figuring out and getting used to, but once you do, the customization for your Herald is quite addictive. Interestingly, your character isn’t based on your overall level, but your individual cores instead, so if you swap to a brand new Core, you’re back at level one power-wise. How you build your character to suit your playstyle is up to you, deciding from different weapon choices, numerous ranged weapons, DoT stacking and plenty of different options and even companions.

Merchant trading doesn’t usually warrant a specific mention, but like a few other mechanics in Undungeon, it’s worth an explanation here. There’s no real currency in the game, so instead you actually have to trade items, bartering like you would in real life. Each item you find along the way has a value associated with it, so if you want to buy a new weapon or item, you need to trade that amount worth or more to receive it. For example, if the merchant has a cool upgrade or weapon you want from them and it costs 200, you then need to give 200 worth of items back in exchange for it. You can do this manually, but will spend a ton of time doing so, thankfully there’s an auto button that will do the best it can without overspending too much, but make sure to double check you’re not ‘selling’ something you want to keep before accepting. It’s an interesting trading system that I didn’t really get at first, but eventually came to accept and agree with, as it makes sense given the post-apocalyptic setting.

Next is combat, as Herald will almost constantly be in battles. You start out with a simple claw, able to swipe and inflict damage, but you’re going to have to learn how to dash and dodge, utilize range items, shield blocking and more if you want a chance at surviving and progressing. The beginning is very melee focused and doesn’t teach you much outside of the basics. Eventually you’ll start running into ranged enemies and ones that retreat, and if you aren’t proficient at range attacks, you’re going to be in for a rude awakening.

Combat is in real time, and once you grasp all of its mechanics it can be quite addictive, that is, until you hit a brick wall of difficulty near the end and will be forced to grind to progress. Annoyingly, your weapons and equipment can break, and having this happen at a really inopportune time can be quite frustrating. Remember those organ upgrades I talked about? Those become destroyed every time you die as well, making you increasingly weaker if you don’t have spares to slot in. Thankfully there’s a combat pause when you want to change weapons or equipment, or when weapons break, allowing you to take a moment for a breather and plan what you want to equip.

Another really unique mechanic is how you heal in Undungeon. Instead of a normal healing spell or potion, instead you throw a shard onto the battlefield. The first person or creature to hit and break it gets the healing from it. That’s right, your healing shard you just dropped might heal the enemy if they hit it before you. This doesn’t happen often if you simply run away real quick to drop it and swing at it, but can go awry in the middle of a chaotic battle. This is also combined with a mechanic that makes every enemy that hits you stronger each time, becoming exponentially harder the worse you do, and if you die, adds to the difficulty with your upgrades breaking.

While I wish there were different difficulty settings because of these reasons, much like a Souls game, you simply accept its challenge and try to work with it as best as you can. My only big complaint is a massive difficulty spike near the end that forced me to grind side quests and extra areas for hours to become strong enough to progress.

For how much time you are in combat, you’ll spend twice that reading all of the narrative and dialogue. Thankfully the pixel art is done fantastically, full of detail and smooth animations throughout. Every character, background and object appears to be handmade and it comes across in a great visual aesthetic. The soundtrack is done quite well also, with some low-key electronic vibes, though the glaring omission is voiced dialogue, especially given how much text there is to sift through. I get that would have been a massive order, but it really did feel like a missed opportunity to bring more immersion into the unique cast of characters and lore.

With a game so heavily invested into its narrative and lore, there’s a mountain of text to get through, great for those that love to read novels, not so much for those that want to simply play and progress the story. Undungeon can become punishingly difficult at times, especially when you aren’t focused and hit a bad streak of deaths in a row, yet there was always something bringing me back, wanting to give Herald one more go to fix the shattered universe, especially once you unlock a new character to play as.

**Undungeon was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 7.3 / 10
Gameplay: 7.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 7.0 / 10


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