There’s definitely room for more games like Under Leaves on the Xbox. Rather than be a challenge, or a chance to ‘pwn’ someone, it’s a game to relax with. The laid-back nature of Under Leaves attracted the attention of my wife and children, drawing them to it like the creatures in Viva Pinata. In our house, there’s nothing wrong with a game that loosens the demands and just lets us play.
At its heart, Under Leaves is a hidden object game, not too dissimilar to the Artifex Mundi titles you see regularly on the Xbox. If you’ve not played any of those, then think of Under Leaves as a kind of Where’s Wally, or a hide-and-seek title that children’s books sometimes dabble in. Each level is centred on an animal – a flamingo, koala, octopus, etc – and they have dietary needs, like mushrooms, bugs, leaves or nuts. You will be given a number of these items to find in the environment, where they will be camouflaged against the undergrowth or tucked ‘under leaves’. Move the cursor round, press A on anything you find, and then return to the animal once you’ve reached the total.
There are multiple tableaus per level, so when you’ve exhausted one screen, you can tap the directional arrows to move to the next. Get stuck, and there’s the option to do a simple sliding puzzle (only three or four moves to complete, so it’s not as fiendish as it sounds), which triggers a circle that zooms to the correct tableau and then shrinks slowly, giving you time to spot the food item before it becomes incredibly obvious. There are 29 levels in total, and some levels ‘stack’ on the ones you did earlier, so a hedgehog might appear in the same landscape that you ransacked for a squirrel. This means a very delicate difficulty increase, as the squirrel’s acorns remain in the environment, and distract you from finding the bugs that the hedgehog wants. Emphasis on the delicate, there – it’s not much of a difficulty hike.
You will be sweeping over watercolour paintings that are all kinds of wonderful. Full props to the artist, Bára Podhorská, as these feel ripped from a high-class children’s book, or a premium birthday card from a National Trust shop. They animate gently, with the trees moving and fauna popping their head up to say hello, while a gentle soundtrack plays over the top. Charming doesn’t quite cover it, and the finest moments come from when you complete a level and the scene develops ever-so-slightly. Flowers bloom on a tree, or a school of fish swoops by.
There isn’t much more that you can say about Under Leaves, as the emphasis is on simplicity. You’ll hop to different continents (the level select screen is a map of the world), offering you the chance to dive underwater in the Pacific, as well as explore the rainforests of South America and the temperate forests of Europe. Each level nets you an achievement, and doing them all, without hints, nets you an even bigger achievement. That really is it: Under Leaves doesn’t bulk everything out unnecessarily, and it’s about ninety minutes of play.
How much you get from Under Leaves will depend on what you want from it. Case in point, my family and I diverged in our opinions on it. We all agreed that Under Leaves was a lovely, well-crafted game that we’d score well (my family convinced me not to drop a half mark on the score at the end of this review) but I have misgivings, while my family have none. Here’s the case for the prosecution (me).
Under Leaves builds a strong foundation and then doesn’t do much on top of it. As you come to each level, you are searching for the same foods in almost exactly the same way. I wouldn’t expect vast reinventions with each creature, but there is no reason why you couldn’t find shelter for the animal rather than food, or find the animals themselves. Since we’re working with the same tableaus, completing a scene could unlock more of the scene for the next creature, so it feels like you’re progressing. The closest I came to being surprised by anything was on completion of a level, and getting a fanfare of mushrooms appearing on the scene as a reward. Under Leaves could have delighted so much more than it does.
It also felt like Under Leaves could have better-nailed the ‘family game’ thing. These are obviously real-world creatures that we’re looking for, so why not tell us something about them once we’ve finished the level, or show a video of what that creature looks like? There’s a tentative toe into education with the achievement names, which use the beast’s Latin naming, but there was room to do so much more.
Piffle, as my family would say. You’re talking nonsense. Here’s the case for the Defence.
Under Leaves doesn’t need to be anything more than it is. We don’t need to load it with extra modes, a story, highscore tables or a sense of progression. It’s immediately understandable and stays that way, and by doing so it made my whole family want to play it. That’s an extremely rare occurrence, and my daughters will likely play it multiple times, so it doesn’t have to damage longevity.
By maintaining the focus on food, the levels continue from where the last left off, with a new creature being added to the same environment. That made it clear that these animals lived in the same space, and often competed for food. We don’t need to be educated all the time: these things can be gently intimated from playing the damn thing. Charming is enough.
Your conclusion, oh Jury, will depend on what you want or expect from Under Leaves on the Xbox. If you’re looking for a challenge of any form, then Under Leaves is not for you. It’s also not particularly long or deep, so don’t expect anything that will last you for more than an evening. But if you want the gaming equivalent of a foot spa, or a hidden object game that a family could play together (or independently) without much issue, then Under Leaves will charm the socks off you. It’s a children’s book come alive, and we don’t get many of those on Xbox shelves.