A new indie roguelite tries to dig a reputation for itself with some carefully balanced gameplay mechanics and a wicked sense of humour.
Over the last few years roguelites have become an increasing staple of indie developers, bringing, as they do, the ability to extend a game’s longevity by often hundreds of hours without having to create reams of new assets and mechanics. That doesn’t mean they’re easy to make though and getting the balance right between the fun of the core gameplay loop and the gradual arc of improvements is more art than science.
The other problem with the genre is that it puts you in a pretty lofty peer group that includes classics like FTL and Dead Cells, and while UnderMine isn’t quite the equal of either of those paragons of virtue, it does a very good job of getting its balance right. It also has a fully developed dark sense of humour.
After the kingdom starts suffering from frequent earthquakes, the king discovers that none of the knights he sends down the mine to investigate ever return; so instead he sends in an endless procession of peasants, each of which you play on successive runs. Some are men, some women, and all have different names. The only thing they have in common is that. like the knights, none of them makes it back to the surface.
In time-honoured tradition, each run also confers additional advantages on the next poor sap to be hurled into the depths. That starts with your ability to retain the gold you earn. At the start you get to keep half of your wealth at the point of death, but upgrading your gold sack soon improves that total, which is handy because gold is your main currency for acquiring permanent buffs.
As well as gold retention, you can also power up all aspects of combat, for which you use a pickaxe, either to swing at monsters and gold seams or to throw, boomerang-style. Each element can be improved, from the damage done on swings and ranged attacks to improved throwing distance, and more health for those times things don’t go so well. Because as you’ll soon learn it’s very, very easy to get injured in UnderMine.
Some of that damage is done by mobs, which get tougher and more numerous as you get stronger, and some by traps. Those include pits to fall into, spinning blades, pads that fire darts at you, and a selection of traps involving spikes coming up through the floor. On their own none of them is all that scary but combined with the mobs and the speed at which things can go sideways, you’re rarely more than one unexplored room from your doom.
As well as improvements wrought by buying upgrades, you will also find relics on your travels. These confer one-off skills or stat buffs that last a single run and can be anything from extra gold to more powerful attacks to boots that let you walk over spikes or long drops. The other way to acquire relics is by getting the blacksmith to forge them for you while you’re back at the surface, and to do that he needs thorium, the game’s second currency.
You acquire thorium from a variety of sources, which get more numerous as you progress. At the beginning it’s only bosses and certain monsters that drop it, but as you explore deeper you’ll also find statues that release it when they’re attacked. Although the relics you buy from the blacksmith only last one run, they’re added to the roster of discoverable treasure on subsequent runs.
You can find blueprints, which the blacksmith uses to create fresh upgrades, when you’ve collected enough thorium to pay him. He’s not the only upgrade vendor on the surface though. You’ll also be able to shop with the arch mage, bomb smith, merchant, and a potion-vending alchemist. To start with your peasant can only carry a single potion but there’s a second slot available for purchase, giving you more options about what to take into battle.
Because levels are procedurally generated, their 16-bit Zelda-style top-down view making maps of interconnected square rooms, the exact combination of monsters, treasure, vendors and bosses is never the same twice, so planning what to bring with you is more a matter of what you can afford and your preferred play style than any specific encounters you’re expecting. And especially in the early days, your main goal on each run is to emerge with as much gold as possible to toughen up your next peasant.
However, in spite of the variety of relics, potions, and powers, combat remains fairly primitive, your swing and throw getting progressively more effective but no more engaging. It can also be tricky judging jumps in the game’s isometric view, and the occasional leap onto spikes or down a pit can fairly be blamed on the forced perspective rather than your own cack-handedness. With a fixed camera angle, the mini-map can also sometimes obscure goodies, although that’s more rarely an issue.
As in all good roguelites, the real pleasure is in the slow, steady progression from defenceless wimp to occasional power-up-driven golden god, as a combination of relics and hard-earned upgrades come together into a super run – either making you massive quantities of gold or wiping out a boss and opening shortcuts to deeper levels. It doesn’t entirely make up for the slightly lacklustre combat, but UnderMine remains compelling for many, many hours.
UnderMine review summary
In Short: A well designed, entertaining, and black humoured roguelite that does a great job of balancing long-term progress with the need to extend individual runs.
Pros: Plenty of enemies, a range of buffs and some double-edged power-ups. Solid procedural generation and a constant sense of progress.
Cons: Battles eventually start to feel stale and the mid-game is very grind-y. Each incremental upgrade can be a bit underwhelming.
Formats: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC
Release Date: 11th February 2021
Age Rating: 7
By Nick Gillett
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