There isn’t a lot of air between Underland: The Climb and Underland, the first in this series of physics-based puzzle games. Underland arrived on Xbox only eight months ago, in October of 2021. That’s often a red flag: that the sequel is a glorified level pack, cynically ground out for some extra bank.
Not here. Underland: The Climb is about as far from a cash-grab as an indie sequel can get. This is a significant re-tune, lifting a game up from its 2/5 doldrums and into a place where it deserves a recommendation. It’s gone from grinding our gears to gently oiling them, turning our mental cogs.
You wouldn’t know this was a significant re-tune from its presentation. Underland: The Climb looks much the same as Underland, with its widescreen Nintendo Game Boy visuals and doomy soundtrack. It’s got no charm in the way it looks, which would have been a welcome improvement.
The story’s just the first game in reverse, too. Instead of you and your team heading downward to the mythical Underland in search of human survivors of an apocalypse, you’re heading back up. Underland has been overtaken by monsters, so your only hope is back on the surface. Presumably the plot of future Underlands will be to yo-yo between the two. Let’s just say that the story isn’t part of the glow-up.
If you haven’t played Underland then an explanation is in order. There are thirty discrete levels here, and the aim is the same in each one: to get a human to an elevator at the end of the level. As you’d expect, the journey isn’t easy, as the way is blocked by monsters, acid, uncrossable crevasses and more. Luckily, you have access to the machinery within the level. With a tap of the shoulder buttons, you can move control from your human to gates, platforms, TNT buggies, cannons and more.
Lift a gate up and it might free the monster that was behind it, and that monster will now press a switch that lifts you up to the top parts of the level. Often, Underland: The Climb is a complex machine, where mastery comes from knowing which part of the machine to fiddle with first.
In the first game, this process was infuriating. Switching between machines was long-winded and slow; moving lots of humans was long-winded and slow; and grappling with the game’s physics was long-winded, slow and impossibly punishing. Acid globules would have a mind of their own, gravity would do wonky things, and generally you would be restarting simply because the world’s ‘unique’ approach to physics would kill you in unwanted ways.
This is Underland: The Climb’s big focus, and it’s made improvements that can be measured in light years.
First of all, you’re not looking to get multiple survivors to a single lift. It’s an obvious change but a needed one. It might feel a little lonely and there’s no additional challenge of trying to save everyone, but the net benefit is massive. It’s far less finicky.
There’s less of an orientation towards toying with niggly stuff, too. Underland: The Climb knows that its liquid physics are problematic so uses them rarely. The same goes for the TNT buggy, which had a habit of flipping onto its back when you least wanted it to. Here, it’s only in a few levels, and you don’t have to launch it over chasms any more. It’s used in more simplistic interactions.
Basically, Underland: The Climb knows its limits. It steers clear of the big jumps and wild obstacle courses. In Crystal Maze terms, it’s not interested in Physical or Skill challenges, and shows preference for the Mental instead, and that’s absolutely what it is good at.
Get roughly halfway through Underland: The Climb, and the levels become demonic, in a good way. The first dozen deaths will be spent working out what on Earth the level wants from you. But by juggling platforms, monsters and TNT, you begin to make headway and a path starts clearing to the elevator.
We are not exaggerating when we say that some of the puzzles here are the cleverest, most intricate that we have played in some time. We can’t imagine how many sheets of squared paper the designers must have gone through to make these, and – in their own small way – they are exquisite.
Another spot of housekeeping that has been done is in the controls. Digging, which is a huge part of Underland: The Climb, feels like it has been dramatically improved. In the original, digging felt like using Microsoft Paint with a mouse between your teeth. It gave you a lot of freedom in theory, but was impossible to use. Here, it’s possible to control the speed of the digging, which gives infinitely more control, and suddenly you’re able to create loops for ball bearings or mazes for your TNT cart.
But the controls aren’t improved across the board. The biggest omission is selecting machinery with the shoulder buttons. When you have a large number of machines in one level, it can take an age to select the one you want. That’s when you can see what you’re selecting: often, ordnance will overlay on each other, and the measly little arrows that signify focus aren’t enough to show you what you are doing. The best level in the game, level 17, is a fantastic interpretation of those gate-opening puzzles that you often see in mobile ads. But it’s undermined by having so many things to control, and so much awkwardness in selecting them.
It’s a hurdle to overcome, but it’s possible. Genuinely, we thought that Underland the First had no potential, that there would have been no future in it. But Underland: The Climb shows us that we’re lacking in imagination.
What Underland: The Climb amounts to is a significant leap on from the original, with controls puzzles and usability all given a shot in the arm. It’s still awkward in places, and has the charm of a lead brick, but this has grown up to be a head-scratching puzzler with a knack for fiendish levels. It’s fair to say that we underestimated Underland: The Climb.
You can buy Underland: The Climb from the Xbox Store