If you were an astronaut returning from a failed mission to Earth, only to find that humanity had hidden in a vault below the surface, you’d probably take it personally. But the main characters are pushing past the insult, and they’re determined to rejoin their loved ones in the buried city of Underland.
But it won’t be easy. The four kilometres to Underland are a gauntlet of acid pools, gas leaks and wide open chasms. Sure, there’s the odd buzzsaw and cannon to commandeer in an effort to get past them, but it’s almost like your mates don’t want you to catch up.
They could have left the world in a prettier state, too. The best thing you can say about Underland’s presentation is that it’s aiming to look like a Game Boy port, which it more or less succeeds at doing. But Underland is an ugly old game, with stiff astronauts (admittedly the suits probably don’t offer much maneuverability), gloopy acid that looks and moves more like rice pudding, and lots of blank space and metal girders. And outside of a minimalist synth opening, the music’s ugly too. Repetitive industrial sounds clang away like a Nine Inch Nails sound test.
Control-wise, this isn’t a fantastic achievement. You tap RB and LB to highlight your astronauts or some of the machinery in the environment. Once they’ve got a triangle above them, it means you’re in control, and you can move them about. TNT rovers can be driven backwards and forwards, cannons can be tilted up and down, and floating platforms can be floated. But it’s all so very slow, and we can’t quite conceive of why. Moving the floating platforms in particular is a slog: you often need to use two of them to create a moving staircase for your astronauts, but they’re zimmer frame-slow.
You’re moving these various parts around so that you can get the astronauts to the lift at the end of the game screen, plunging them further downwards and closer to Underland. So, what you have is some physics and deformation-based puzzling, as you use the tools around you to clear the way or build structures to get you out.
One of the first tools you come across is a kind of buzzsaw, which you can use to tunnel into the ground. It might be useful to create a path to the exit, or equally create a pit for acid to sluice into, away from your astronauts. A vehicle with a Mario-like pipe can suck up the acid and warp it to another portable pipe, which might fill your pit. And a drone with a vacuum-pump attached can hover into acid and suck it all up.
As an idea, it’s a beauty. You’ll commonly see four or five tools like this in a level, and knowing which one is best to use, and in what order, is a challenge. Often, there will be multiple solutions, but none of them are easy, which is exactly where a game like this wants to position itself.
But an idea is where it remains. When you get the tools in your hands and start working towards a goal, everything falls apart. Most of the time, it’s because of the reliance on physics. Underland, you see, is a game where acid flows, stacked blocks teeter, and TNT rovers awkwardly stop as they hit pixels in the environment. In another game an emphasis on gravity, momentum and the rest might have worked, but the physics in Underland feel far, far from correct.
The acid is blancmange and obeys a bizarre, alternate-version of physics. It moves uphill. You can blow a hole in the bottom of an acid pool with a cannon, and little gloops will remain in the pool and refuse to come down. Other times, it will seem to lock onto your astronauts and slide over everything to get them. It somehow manages to be slippery and sticky at the same time, and will behave differently on every playthrough.
Similar issues happen with explosions. Destroy an obstructive wall and walk your astronaut through it, and they will often refuse because there’s an imperceptible pixel that won’t let them through. Astronauts can’t duck, either, and you’ll find that they will stand stubbornly by entrances that are an inch or two taller than they are.
Underland finds novel ways to say ‘no’ to your plans, and we grew more than a little tired of them. If they were consistent, it would be excusable, but they often aren’t. Floating platforms can only move an astronaut up and down, but can move a cannon up, down, left and right. Some tools float while others don’t. It’s a weird, bizarro version of our physics, with some inconsistent rules layered on top. And, of course, testing stuff within it is slow and laborious. As a sandbox, it’s not an inviting one.
We can’t deny that the levels in Underland are good. We can imagine them being designed on graph paper with people gathered around, nodding sagely at how devious the layouts were. But port them into Underland’s perverse laws of nature, and it feels like you’re trying to bottle chaos.
There are thirty levels here, with an achievement for each one (no 1000G for ten minutes worth of play, we’re afraid). The thirty levels will take you a couple of hours, but at least half of that will be spent ramming your head against the controller, cursing a rogue acid drop that has glided across the floor to kill your astronauts.
You have to admire the ambition. Underland may look like a ropey Game Boy launch title, but it’s pulled out the stops to hand you a full physics engine, including the ability to deform the level, and then let you have it with some powerful tools. It’s Bridge Constructor with more toys and a love for science-fiction. But when solids, liquids and gases flick Isaac Newton the bird and do whatever they want, it can be too random, too incomprehensible. Underland, unfortunately, is underbaked.
You can buy Underland for £6.69 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S