I need a hero. He’s gotta be strong and he’s gotta be fast, and he’s gotta be fresh from the fight. What does Underhero give me? It provides me the anti-hero, a dark horse – the underdog. Re-imagine every classic video game adventure you’ve embarked on. All those nameless goons who’ve met your fist, blade and bullet on your road to victory. Will somebody please think of the minions!? Well, Underhero is here to provide that spotlight. An insight into the criminal underbelly of a fantasy world that asks the question: what if the hero failed? But more importantly, what if a minion, a nobody, could have the reigns of being a big shot. The question has been answered and wrapped in a wonderful package of RPG-platforming goodness. My wishes of holding out for a hero ‘til the end of the night have been answered.
Off the bat, you start off as a legendary hero. Health maxed out, full attack power, and at the lair of the evil mastermind – Mr Stitches. As I ventured up the steps to face my foe, my magical talking sword in hand, three generic goons halted my progress. As we bickered and argued, a glint of the chandelier above us all caught my attention, before it came crashing down on us, causing nothing more than a bloody pulp. Another minion cut the wire and crushed us all. Just like that, my selfless adventure was over and so was my life. But this isn’t a tale about the hero – this is a chance for a new, reluctant nobody to stand up.
Rising up against the leader of your villainous rebellion is no easy feat. Underhero is a lengthy adventure into its often hilarious fantasy world. With tongue-in-cheek dialogue and often poking fun at conventions that plague the genre, it’s evident this isn’t a game that prides itself on being too serious. On the contrary, it is an excellent use of humour as not only a means to tell a story, but to further the gameplay.
As you venture out, you’ll battle a plethora of enemies. Underhero goes for a semi-turn based approach and sports a system that is often similar to the Mario & Luigi series. A stamina bar gauges your moves, with attacks costing a certain amount of points. Deplete the bar and you’re unable to move for a brief period of time, allowing your opponent to take full advantage of this opening. What takes place is a carefully planned out battle of attrition. Enemy attacks can be dodged and even blocked, all of which are telegraphed through subtle animation cues which hint to their attack style. You can jump or duck below these, which provides you a quick stamina recharge, or you can block the attacks with your shield. Parrying with the shield is also a viable option as well which, again, provides a small stamina boost and an opportunity to attack.
It’s a system that slowly develops over its opening hours and provides a unique spin on classic RPG combat. It can, however, become a chore, with battles lasting way too long. It doesn’t help that the stamina bar refills at a snail’s pace. This creates awkward moments in fights where you and your opponent stare blankly into each other’s eyes. A kiss could probably break the tension, but alas, waiting for your bar to recharge enough is the only option. It’s an interesting system and when it works it feels extremely natural. The pace is off point though so never flows at a smooth rate. On the flip side, combat can be avoided entirely by tossing a coin to your enemy in the hopes of bribing them, which eases the monotony of some battles.
Outside of battles, your character will be spending their time exploring the 2D landscape through platforming. None of it is particularly challenging, but engages you with the world and showcases its wonderful personality through the characters you meet and the environments. While some areas boast some beautiful art design, a large quantity of environments feature a lot of ‘dead space’. A screen which should be covered with the beautiful worlds crafted instead feels half baked with large sections using repetitive assets to fill the screen. It’s disappointing, as the art direction itself is superb, hosting a rich vibrancy of colours and details to really make each area feel unique. Unfortunately, a lot of this is lost, meaning only a portion of the screen feels utilised.
Breaking up the adventure are also a host of minigames, which are incorporated into the story in surprising and joyful new ways. Whether it’s to break the traditional conventions of a boss battle in favour of a platforming race or a quiz master halting your progress to test your knowledge thus far, it’s constantly encouraging that Underhero is providing new and delightful new ways to surprise players throughout the experience. It’s clear Underhero has been developed by a team with a passion for the project, each injecting their own personalities to the proceedings to create a world that is unique and truly their own creation. Despite its low budget aesthetic, it’s a game made with love for the genre.
A special mention is to be made for the truly fantastic score too: a score that punctures through each new world with confidence and beautifully mastered beats. Crafted by Stijn van Wakeren, he utilises playful melodies so that each new room embodies an identity of its own. Collectable cassette tapes can be found across your adventure, providing you a means to sit back, relax and absorb the gleeful joy of these pleasing tones.
What holds Underhero back from greatness though is the amount of glitches that remain present in its current release. During my playthrough I experienced invincible enemies, loading up the game and having it skipping entire sections, and even an optional area that constantly results in me falling through the floor. It’s heartbreaking that a game that is so easy to fall in love with consistently feels like a battle against an array of glitches and bugs. Hopefully these will be patched down the line, but with some technical issues that are preventing progress in specific areas, it’s disappointing in its current state.
In a world where every video game idolises the hero, a villain stands up and says “enough is enough!”. Underhero is a playful take on stereotypical conventions that have plagued many gaming genres for years. Developer Paper Castle may miss the mark occasionally, but Underhero on Xbox One is an inventive take on classic gaming tropes. It’s weird, wonderful and downright hilarious. A passion project fuelled by love, it’s damning that Underhero is riddled with glitches. Hopefully patches will bring everything up to standard, as it’s hard not to root for this villain.