Experience Inc. is a developer with mastery over two genres in particular: the dungeon crawler (Stranger of Sword City), and horror (Death Mark). Combine the two and you get Undernauts: Labyrinth of Yomi. This is a grim and sublime dungeon crawler, which really sells the idea of a desperate struggle for survival within a nightmare of ripped body parts and monsters straight from the textbook of the grotesque.
It starts with your party of heroes being trapped in Yomi. “Yomi” is the Japanese version of hell, but in this game it’s also a massive tower filled with nightmares that… corporations have sent people into to mine. See, there are resources that are only tappable within Yomi, and so various competing organisations send teams into there to tap as much of it as they can. You play as the leader of one particular party of these miners, and after the rest of their team gets devoured by a particularly loathsome monster in the opening moments, you… form another team and head back out there.
This game makes a surprisingly strong statement for a genre that’s not usually known for heavy philosophy. There’s a little radio that pops up from time to time to assail your eyes and ears with propaganda around the price of the resources that you’re meant time be mining, and conditions down there in the mines. However, you can neither communicate back (to push back at the very, very fake news), nor even escape. Meanwhile, the only way that you can even survive is because a young girl’s blood fuels the “fusion reactors” that power the base camps for the mining companies. That girl can’t die because of magical reasons, but she bleeds into perpetuity and is in constant agony, which is pretty unpleasant. She also raises all kinds of red flags that should make you intensely wary of one of your few allies. None of this is spoilers, and I’d never ruin this one on you. What I am describing here is only the first area that you’ll visit in the relentlessly grim world, but each new location only builds on the fundamental darkness of the world of Undernauts.
Horror comes from the fears of the people of the time, and Undernauts represents a particularly sharp and cynical metaphor for capitalism. It’s actually quite impressive that the game has the claustrophobic atmosphere that it does, because most of the enemy designs are not explicitly horror, and while the dungeon itself is certainly grim, there’s also nothing in there that’s any more extreme, grotesque or vile than the standard dark fantasy dungeon crawler. Undernauts is horror, but rather than the in-your face terror that we generally assume with horror games, it’s horror for the themes, the occasional key art scene, and that claustrophobia that it creates in drumming it into you that there is no escape and everything is out there to get you. A pretty fair assessment of capitalism, really.
Undernauts is also a nicely challenging experience. Given the rest of the theme, I think I would have preferred if permadeth was standard and a party wipe-out really was a game over, deleted save file and all. That would have fit the theme best. Instead, the developers have implemented a Dragon Quest-like structure where a party wipe-out means a restore back at home base. You’ll need to heal everyone at some cost, but you’ll be able to continue the adventure where you left off. This is one of those thematic compromises that allows the developers to make battles – particularly those bosses – good and challenging, knowing that players won’t just give up entirely if they happen to lose.
There’s a good combat system running under Undernauts. It’s purely turn-based, and in many ways traditional. There are plenty of character classes, split between front-line fighters and ranged assassins, magic users, and support classes at the back. There are plenty of abilities to divvy across those classes, and some good synnergies to find in building an effective fighting force. But all of that is standard for the genre. What separates this one is the “surge” abilities. At the start of each turn, you can, optionally, enact one of three “surge” abilities. One massively boosts strength. Another defence. A third results in some huge bonus rewards if you manage to win the battle in that turn. You get this effect for one turn, before you need to let it lie dormant for a turn, and working out how to leverage that ability to capitalise on the ebbs and flow in combat is key to success. It’s such a seemingly small addition to the standard dungeon crawler formula, but it ends up becoming such an elegant and clever addition to the game’s strategy.
The other element of the dungeon crawl that the better developers focus on nailing is the exploration. Undernauts is an Experience Inc. game, so of course the dungeon layouts are wonderful. What makes this one particularly compelling is the way that you can use items to open up new passageways and slog more deeply into the bowels of horror. You’ll start out with just the one ability: the ability to build doorways where walls previously stood. You need to work out where there’s a structural weakness in the “mine” walls, and then install a door there. It’s a clever way of forcing players to properly explore the spaces, and it’s not long before the number of ways to manipulate the dungeon environments grow. As one giant, elaborate puzzle it’s fascinating, and mercifully the random encounter rate is kept right down. There are plenty of enemy icons lying around that you can battle for experience grinding purposes, but Experience Inc. understands well how frustrating random encounters are when you’re trying to move around and solve an environmental puzzle, and they keep well out of players’ way for that.
As far as the gameplay is concerned, my only issue is a mild one: the menu interface could have been a bit more user-friendly. This is such a minor niggle I hesitate to mention it at all, but the menu system made skilling up, equipping characters, shifting formations around, and even using items more of a learning curve than I might have liked. It’s manageable, but every time I picked the game up I needed to spend a minute or two re-orientating myself with how to use healing potions and the like.
As a final note, however, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention just how gorgeous the character and enemy art is in Undernauts. Experience Inc. has the best artists in this particular niche, and while the sprites don’t feature too much movement, and most of them don’t really fill the screen as impressively as we’ve seen in some crawlers, the level of detail in that art, and the creative energy in the designs is just wonderful. I especially appreciated how so many of the enemy designs were inspired by mushing two animal types of characteristics together. If you’re gunning for a horror vibe you can do worse than being inspired by Doctor Moreau.
When we think about this Halloween season and all the horror games that celebrate it, we rarely think about a dungeon crawler. After all, the ‘crawler doesn’t feature visceral action or jump scares. It’s all too turn-based for that. But, of course, horror can be much more than jump scares and visceral action, and Undernauts demonstrates that beautifully. Strong atmosphere, challenging combat and Experience Inc.’s mastery of the genre combine to create something that is nearly impossible to put down.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb