Undungeon (Review)

Dec 19, 2021

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Developed by: Laughing Machines
Published by: Tiny Build
Released: November 18, 2021 (PC, Xbox)

Deeply designed. Challenging combat. Satisfying systems. Undungeon has become one of my favorite games of 2021. In the month since its release on PC and Xbox Game Pass, Undungeon’s rich narrative, world-building, and flow of combat have drawn me in time after time. Truthfully, I’ve started to write this review multiple times. Each time I pause knowing that there is more in Laughing Machines’ game that I haven’t experienced or experimented with. The result is a richly layered game that demands the attention of the player. Fortunately, Undungeon earns the attention it demands.

Developer Laughing Machines launched a Kickstarter for Undungeon in 2017. While the initial design was broader and included numerous playable characters. The end product is a tightly focused experience that doesn’t sacrifice gameplay or story.

Story

Multiple realities have collapsed into one. Planets merged into one plane during the “shift.” Void, the main character, is a Herald. Void discovers the world along with the player. Consequently, this results in Void learning along with the player. The story reveals itself through dialog between characters. Some characters are mortals trying to survive the “shift.” Others are immortal, like Void. Although, not all immortals are working to save reality. Or create a new one as Void is. Furthermore, Laughing Machines creates a broad cast of characters each with their own stories and motivations.

The storytelling is rich and rewarding. It demands a player’s attention to track the proper nouns of characters and deities, although some names reference Zoroastrianism, the mythology is unique to Undungeon. Players will also do a lot of reading through dialog options. This investment of time and attention pays dividends. Most characters convey their own personality through dialog. And the motivations of Void and the other immortals has multiple layers. Even up until the final confrontation, I was unsure which way the story would go. Fortunately, for a game with such a rich narrative, it allows for a dialog heavy final confrontation.

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Creative and diverse characters populate Undungeon’s world. Player’s can mainline the story missions, but much of the world building is in side quests and characters that are not essential. Although, a set of main characters comes back for the finale and Void is able to decide who to bring to the new reality.

All of this depth, characterization, and narrative is present through Void’s campaign. Completing the game unlocks another character who has a different connection to the mythology of the world, along with a whole different gameplay style.

Gameplay

Regardless of the character, Undungeon plays like a rouge like action RPG. Unfortunately, this generalization does not do the combat justice. While it may at first seem like a Diablo based ARPG, the combat has its’ own flavor and rhythm. There are melee attacks. A quick attack and a charged area of effect attack. The charged attack has various effects depending on the weapon equipped. Ranged weapons are consumable, but essential.

Undugeon differentiates itself from other action RPGs through its’ enemy attacks. Once an enemy successfully hits the player, their attacks do 100% more damage. Consquently, this can stack up to five times. A star indicator over the enemy shows their damage buff. This is equivalent to a GTA wanted level. The result is that groups of enemies can quickly do compounded damage. Crowd control, dashes, shields, and ranged attacks are essential to surviving groups of attackers. One on one, Void’s combat is satisfying if simple. In groups, it demands concentration. But the flow state a successful battle results in created some of the most tense and rewarding gameplay I’ve experienced this year.

In addition, Undungeon includes modifiers that add buffs and resistance. It is important to keep up with upgrades. This was an important lesson I learned after dying the first few times. The game provides a narrative reason for the world resetting upon death. This rationale maintains continuity within the game world and is another way that Undungeon invites the player to adopt the character of Void. Fortunately, all is not lost upon death. Mirrors located around the world capture the essence of Void at that moment and provide ways to maintain upgrades skills and abilities.

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Collectively, the combat, upgrade system, and world exploration create difficult, but rewarding gameplay.

Graphics & Sound

Laughing Machines’ pixel art has an eerie beauty to it. Worlds have collapsed and the game operates in the barren apocolptic aftermath. This limits the pallet and geography. Furthermore, the setting and characters are all limited within the narrative. Undungeon’s esthetic and sound design all fit within the narrative of the game. The sparse soundtrack fits the isolate landscape. Collectively, the pixel art style, color pallet, and moody soundtrack create a tone that matches the narrative.

Concerns

Undungeon is unforgiving. This may push players away initially. Undungeon is also unintuitive at parts. Its’ systems are deep. If a player rushed through a dialog box or did not wade through the menus, critical systems and upgrade can be missed for periods of time. But investing time into the game, is rewarding. Unfortunatley, the difficulty and limited hand holding may put off some players trying the game out on Game Pass.

Additionaly, the text is small. I played on both a PC and Xbox. I consistently moved closer to read the text off the TV. The promixity of the monitor was easier.

Undone by Undungeon

Undungeon’s rich world and challenging combat evolved my experience from a straightforward action RPG into a deeply satisfying narrative and mechanics heavy computer RPG. Players may get the urge to bounce off and not invest the time that Undungeon demands. But for those that do, Undungeon has a unique and compelling story to tell woven between white-knuckled combat.

Score: 9.0

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