Readers over at Nicchiban already know I have a softspot for Isekai, regardless of how saturated a genre it is in the medium. Everyone will also be pleased to know that much like Isekai, Roguelites are a highly-popular guilty pleasure of mine on the video game side; and UnderMine is no exception.
UnderMine is the latest game from game developer Thorium; which consists of a two-man team, Derek Johnson and Cliff Tasker. The players tasked with guiding an endless army of peasants (‘one peasant at a time’) through the nefarious and titular UnderMine.
Armed with nothing but a pickaxe, an unreliable sack for storing gold, and a trusty canary, the player begins their descent down into the mine. Each expedition funded and built on the bones of those that came before.
Platforms: Windows PC, Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S (via Xbox Play Anywhere, Backward Compatibility)
Release Date: August 6th, 2020 (Windows PC, Xbox One), February 11th, 2021 (Nintendo Switch), March 30th, 2021 (PlayStation 4)
Price: $19.99 USD
The player, taking on the role of a humble peasant, is tasked by the mage Arkanos to rescue the missing blacksmith and ultimately to discover the source of the earthquakes plaguing the area.
Wayland the blacksmith is found in short order in the first section of the UnderMine. But that’s fitting, as he introduces the player to upgrades and sells the most basic upgrades such as Max HP, Swing Damage, and reducing the gold you drop upon death. That’s right, you don’t get to keep all of it!
Enter a randomly generated dungeon, defeat bosses and enemies, and use the gold and other goodies found on one trip to become stronger for the next one. The gameplay loop of UnderMine has been done before, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining.
Not only is the layout randomized, but many other facets are too. Each floor contains a Relic that’s locked behind a door (except for the first floor, that one’s a freebie). Relics will drastically change the way you play, and if you’re lucky you’ll get ones that combo together.
Lucky enough to get the Butcher Knife (Enemies have a chance to drop food) and the Ursa Major (Eating food permanently increases max health)? Then get ready to be unstoppable. That is, unstoppable until you get hard walled by your weapon damage.
Other runs you’ll get the absolute worst Relics; like one that changes your bomb to make incendiary puddles (that can hurt you too), or makes “echoes” of your pickaxe when you throw it at something. This sounds good on paper, but the echoes do about a fifth of the damage, and will proc retaliation damage from a charged up lightning bug.
The point is that the only thing you can rely on is your permanent upgrades, but you’ll have to pray for good luck if you want to make any noteworthy progress in short order. No matter how lucky you are, you’ll ultimately be held back by your damage output.
On the topic of damage, the peasant can either swing their pickaxe, or toss it out to have it simply come back to them. Throwing it does notably less damage but is a ranged attack, while swinging is faster and more powerful.
The problem is that swinging is considerably less safe than throwing. Most enemies can be kited around and battered with ranged attacks, but this strategy starts to fail against enemies like the elfin priestesses in the Dungeon levels, as they’ll easily heal the damage if you neglect to keep the pressure on.
Swinging wouldn’t be so bad if enemies actually took any sort of hitstun. At best they just get knocked back slightly, and this knockback means nothing against enemies with ranged attacks or enemies with fast attack animations.
As far as combat is concerned, UnderMine overly incentivizes attacking with ranged throws a majority of the time. This is true to such an extent that you’ll eventually reach a point where ranged damage falls off too harshly, but when you dare to attack in melee you’ll get swarmed and poisoned by Toxic Scales (I hit this proverbial wall in the fourth region of UnderMine).
The boss fights are fun, but ironically rank and file enemies are considerably more frustrating. I’d sooner fight the second boss forever than encounter another room with two druids constantly summoning poison-spewing insects. Difficulty primarily comes from enemy spam; sure an Imp is an easy kill on its own, but when you’re being followed by a swam of bats it’s hard to focus on either foe.
Graphically, UnderMine is a pixel-art adventure with some bouncy effects to give the game a little more fluid feeling. Despite the pixel graphics, it uses enough little tricks to set it apart from any retro styles that are in vogue.
The characters are funny, especially the playable peasant. You either play a mustachio’d blue collar worker, or a cute girl. If you get one that doesn’t suit your fancy, you can change your random peasant for another one at the mirror next to Arkanos.
Enemies are sometimes difficult to spot in the environment, but there’s a nice feature where the enemies glow red briefly to telegraph when they’re about to attack. This glow compensates slightly for the danger of melee attacking.
The art direction for the game is a nice touch. Every layer of the UnderMine is given a unique feel, and in addition to a change in aesthetic, the way gold is acquired also changes.
The actual method doesn’t change, as it’s all just swinging your pick at it. The first layer is obvious: smack rocks with gold flecks. However in the dungeon you’ll be smacking the gold from the hands of long forgotten statues. It’s a laudable attention to detail and immersion.
There is considerable lag when a lot of projectiles and enemies are on the screen. But I’m willing to admit this might be because I reviewed the Nintendo Switch port of the game.
The sound is another story. Frankly, I can barely remember if there’s any background music at all. I had to go back and double check (there is). That isn’t to say it’s bad, it’s just so unimportant and basically just serves as part of the ambiance.
What is good however, is the enemy sound effects. There aren’t many important ones, but the first time you hear an Imp’s cackle you’ll etch that sound into your heart because you know you’re about to explode. You can tell Thorium put some thought into using sound to telegraph more subtle attacks from enemies when the red glow might not be enough.
Ultimately, UnderMine is a well thought out Roguelite which will stand above some of its peers. The pixel art style, and admittedly slow progression, will keep fans of the genre busy for hours to come.
Fans of games like Gauntlet or Rogue Legacy will probably find something to enjoy in UnderMine. However the game’s heavy focus on RNG with the Relics and constant enemy spam will alienate roguelite fans that like to succeed with strategy.
UnderMine was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a review code provided by Thorium. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.