Team17 has become a seal of quality. It wasn’t always that way: it often meant more Worms shovelware. But as a publishing house, they have had a stellar five years, from the argument-fodder of Overcooked 1 and 2, to the clumsy party of Moving Out, all the way to – my personal recommendation – Yoku’s Island Express. Then there is Yooka-Laylee, Neon Abyss, Blasphemous, Escapists, Survivalists, etc, etc.
There’s even a ‘brand’ building up, if they didn’t have it before. The vibrant colour palette and whip-smart humour have arguably always been there, but now they’re doing a fine line in mundane tasks behind dressed up as party games. Cooking in Overcooked, moving house in Moving Out, and now the life of an office intern in Going Under. Team17 just love juicing up the tedious.
In Team17 terms, Going Under arrives with only modest fanfare. It’s a surprise, as it’s a Team17 game through and through. The art is beautiful, crisp and colourful, a Google-like office made out of fruit gums. It’s funny too, with the characters taking office stereotypes to their extremes. There’s a dot.com-style CEO, all chest hair and extravagant parties featuring ice sculptures. There’s a work-shy barista called Swomp who invites you to the roof to spit on the project manager’s car. A personal favourite is an AI that’s more than happy to record other people’s conversations and play them back to you, like an Alexa gossiping. Oh, and there’s a dog to pet.
The core joke is that interns do all the dirty work, which is taken to the extreme to mean clearing out dungeons underneath the offices. It sounds contrived but it works. Through pipes, into the basement, are the ruins of failed start-ups, including Joblin, a goblin-filled take on the gig economy, a dating app hellscape called, amazingly, Winkydink, and a cryptocurrency mineshaft full of the undead called Styxcoin. Your task, if you really, really, want that job in marketing, is to clear these dungeons out so that they don’t surface in the office. There’s a nice undercurrent that Fizzle, the lifestyle drink company that you work for, might go the way of these failed start-ups, and their name should give a clue to how that goes.
What plays out in these dungeons is a little more familiar. It’s a rogue dungeon crawler: you go from room to room, you clear out the baddies, they drop loot, you get better at clearing out baddies, you travel further and further down, you die. It’s a tale as old as time, but it works, dammit. The joy comes in the reskin – instead of swords and sorcery, you have staplers, throw rugs (that you throw, obvs), fire extinguishers and protractors. There are cracking puns on marketing spiel and office supplies throughout (a block chain that’s a block on a chain, of course).
Combat is largely driven by the item you are carrying. There’s one button for attack, and that might mean melee or ranged, while you can chuck items at enemies in a slightly fiddly and inaccurate arc. In a couple of nods to Breath of the Wild, there is both a lock-on function and a weapon degrade system, with your favourite maul soon falling by the wayside. You will go through thirty-odd weapons on each dungeon run.
Going Under is a grab bag of stuff from your favourite rogues. There are shops to buy weapons and health; a huge range of perks can be gained from broom closets or delivered by drones; a vampire gives you killer benefits at the cost of a curse: and there’s a boss room at the end of it all, different for each dungeon (but never that difficult). Back in the office you can choose from five mentors, each with a different set of associated benefits, which you’ll have to complete challenges to unlock.
It’s all so good in theory. I really wanted to love Going Under. I’m a Team17 fanboy, I love the witty and wonderful world they’ve created here, and I’m an office-hound so I live all of the agile, teambuilding, stackranking verbiage that they take aim at here. And rogueish dungeon crawlers are my jam. I love ‘em. But, for a game that’s all about clearing out the dungeons, there isn’t enough depth here. There’s an irony in that contradiction which the characters would have appreciated.
You’ve got three dungeons here, and fair play to them, they’re wildly different. Virtually no enemy, weapon, boss or even shop is shared between them, and the way you play them even feels different – one has a multitude of explosive enemies, for example, while another likes to chuck in slimes that split. But it just isn’t enough. They are each quite slight, being no more than a few floors and a dozen rooms in each, and you’ll tire of them after four hours or so. Sure, they are procedurally generated and they’re recycled in a different way towards the end, but there’s not a massive difference each time through.
The loot’s a similar story. While every dungeon has different loot, and virtually every item in the cluttered offices could be used as a weapon, there are only five or so in each dungeon that are actually viable. You’re overwhelmed with chaff: small items that do barely any damage and big items that are too unwieldy and one-use to really consider. You find yourself developing a visual filter on the environment where you’re zeroing in on the few weapons that are really worth grabbing. The UI doesn’t help, as it won’t reveal a weapon’s stat bonuses until you’ve dropped one of the three weapons you’re carrying.
The style over substance is fascinating, because the developers at Aggro Crab Games have clearly spent time and created depth in parts of the game, but they never feel like the right parts of the game. There are dozens upon dozens of perks, for example, to first buy and then find in the dungeons. They undoubtedly make each dungeon crawl feel slightly different from the last but, while they can be upgraded, there is only a single tier. That tier unlocks the perk permanently, but you can only have one permanent perk at a time, so you’ll find the one you want and stick with it. It just doesn’t have enough impact on anything the player cares about.
The dialogue with characters is another one. It’s lovely to chat to them all and there are plenty of options, but you can’t help think that the time or resource would have been better spent elsewhere, like on some form of multiplayer mode. The game is crying out for one, and you would have thought Team17 would have forced one through.
The biggest casualty of this shallowness is the progression. The best dungeon crawlers will kick your ass but then give you reassurance that you’re better placed for the next run. That’ll come in the form of XP, saved weapons, unlocked abilities – all that jazz. But Going Under doesn’t really do any of that: as mentioned, you can have a starting perk, a greater range of perks in the dungeon, and you can take on a mentor for some lightweight additional buffs, but there’s nothing more than that. How you jump into your 100th dungeon is largely how you jumped into the 1st, and that only adds to the repetition and short shelf life.
I’m conflicted, because the dungeon crawling is genuinely good fun. It can feel a bit stripped back and then glossed up, as there’s not huge depth to the combat, but the perk variation, the silliness of the weapons, and the quirky moments – a select-an-enemy room that’s dressed as a Tinder-like dating app, for example – make for a frothy, satisfying burst of fun. A ‘my first dungeon crawler’ kind of fun, but enjoyable nonetheless.
The perks are good, too. Couple them with some apps that appear in the rooms (basically one-shot potions or spells), and you can achieve a synergy of abilities that makes a particular dungeon run fantastic. Going Under, through it’s short runtime and lack of longevity, can really achieve peaks. If it follows Team17’s pattern of moving their games to Game Pass, then Going Under is the kind of fire-up-and-forget game that makes it a must.
Calling the main character’s company ‘Fizzle’ is appropriate. Going Under on Xbox One burns brightly at first, witty and wonderful in its design, and with a lot of joy in its dungeon crawling. But then the fizzle comes, with the lack of depth and vacuum of progression soon burning your interest out. I’ll be back when there’s DLC, but it’s a shame that Team17 couldn’t have invested more in this start-up to give it more of a chance to succeed.