Caves and Castles: Underworld is a limited game. It is lacking some pretty fundamental features. It never deviates from a simple gameplay loop. There are no optional goals or any real player choice over what to do next. Gamers looking for a challenge will be disappointed – you won’t find that here.
What you will find though, is a brilliant casual experience.
It’s a unique blend of match-3 puzzling, dungeon crawling and base-building. Fusion games involving puzzle and RPG elements have been shown to work well before, and Caves and Castles is no exception. The three genres fit together seamlessly here to offer a simple gameplay cycle that feels rewarding and encourages the player to engage in it.
You’re invited to an old, abandoned castle and asked to help renovate it back to its former glory. To do that, you’ll need coins, and lots of them. That means venturing into the caves beneath the castle and solving match-3 puzzles to clear blocked passages, open locked doors and free trapped animals. It’s a system of solve puzzles, earn coins, build upgrades.
It never goes any deeper than that and there’s nothing remotely challenging about it. There was always a danger for this kind of experience to sour really quickly. But Caves and Castles: Underworld staves that off, at least for three or four hours, because it feels rewarding to engage in the cycle. The base-builder is lacking some fundamental features – such as the ability to roam freely, rotate the camera or place things where you want – and yet I found it to be the most enjoyable part of the game. It was great to see tangible rewards from all those puzzles I had grinded, and to watch my base come to life from all those animals I had freed.
Speaking of puzzles, the match-3 aspect of the game is clearly the strongest. There are a wide variety of puzzles that you might encounter on your adventures, and there’s a clear difficulty progression too. You start with simple puzzles that only require a few matches to clear some stone blocks. Before long though, you’ll have to contend with puzzles that ask you to fill up a bar by matching gems as quickly as possible, or those that ask you to clear specific gems on certain tiles. Luckily, Caves and Castles lets you use power-ups by spending the treasure you might find in the caves. Whilst not strictly necessary, they can be pretty powerful in certain situations and I enjoyed using them.
The only real criticism of the game is the dungeon-crawling. It lacks everything that makes the puzzling element so fun. The dungeons you’ll be exploring are essentially all the same, and once you’ve explored one, you’ve explored them all. There are no enemies to deal with and the only kind of obstacle are levers that need to be pulled to open locked doors – a minor hindrance at best. But perhaps most damning is the fact you can’t even dungeon-crawl properly. You’re given no control over your character, and are limited to simply choosing which direction to go when you come to an intersection.
On the whole, I have been pleasantly surprised by Caves and Castles: Underworld on Xbox. There are issues, such as the terrible dungeon-crawling, but the solid puzzling and rewarding base-building elements more than make up for it. Tackling three genres is no easy feat, but Caves and Castles: Underworld proves that it can be done. The result here is a brilliant casual experience that is perfect for kids or those looking for a few hours of mindless entertainment.