I really wanted to like Underground. It all starts so well, a quaint and heartwarming tale unravelling through picturesque cinematics that perfectly portrays the plight that awaits you in this Wii U exclusive puzzler. We see Sari’s childlike joy when she plucks Swank from a production line as her new robotic butler, and her heartache when, after revealing itself to not particularly excel in the role, her father sends him away to work in the mines with all of the other robots.
With spoken, and even written, dialogue entirely absent, players are left alone to interpret events as they happen, as Sari defies her father’s will and scurries to the underground caverns to rescue her newfound friend. Greeted by the unwelcoming creatures that lurk within its darkened depths, it is down to the player to help the reunited duo steadily make their way back to the surface unharmed.
Given that such wayward charm is always apparent, it is a shame that the execution with Underground isn’t quite as meticulously drilled down. Carefully treading the line between being entertainment and an educational tool, it should be more readily seen as a collaborative brainchild of University Medical Center Groningen, Medical Center Leeuwarden and Grendel Games. They sought to make laparoscopic training more fun and enjoyable, which we more broadly refer to as keyhole surgery.
While a rather dramatic-looking laparoscopic controller has been created for use in hospitals, those playing at home will instead wield the Wii U GamePad as their chosen tool. It’s a far simpler setup, with Left and Right Sticks being used to steer the mechanical arms of Swank’s mining vehicle. Each arm is equipped with a welding laser, drill and grabber, the combination of which is required to successfully complete the puzzles before you and can be freely swapped between by tapping icons on the controller’s touchscreen.
Implementation is lamentably passable, lacking the nuance and precision presumably made possible by the laparoscopic controller – the contraption constructed with two handsets, each with a Wii Remote and Nunchuk, that can be slowly moved around the playing field. It’s understandable that Grendel Games wanted to avoid trying to replicate such control scheme for players not expecting such a strenuous dual-handed experience, but the GamePad’s Sticks as a replacement never stood a chance to match it.
Moving the mechanical arms in itself is a continual chore, their cumbersome speed worsened by the decision that the camera would automatically follow their movement. As the arms move toward each other the camera zooms in, whereas moving them away will see it zoom out. I can appreciate the need to replicate the intricacies of keyhole surgery, but as game design goes it’s enough to drive you neurotic.
It’s immensely disappointing, especially in that the puzzle design in Underground is particularly enjoyable. Players must guide Sari and robots trapped throughout each level to a designated goal, using the tools at your disposal. Scrap can be hurled into nearby smelters, either used to construct makeshift bridges, stairs, elevators and scaffolds or suits of armour that robots can equip – allowing them to perform repairs, attack enemies or destroy obstacles blocking your path. Energy Orbs must be placed in such machinery to manufacture such creations, whereas as Quadronite chunks scattered throughout each stage lend an additional objective to lengthen your playtime.
Frustration soon returns, as robots freed from their rocky confines will automatically wander the quickest path available to them toward the goal. That’s notably simple, but, while robots will walk as far forward as they can, there were numerous occasions when they became confused about which way to go. Meandering back and forth doesn’t help, and some clearer control over their direction – aside from zapping them with the welder to move more quickly – would alleviate many of the troubles that Underground has.
Surgeons and residents will clearly benefit through Underground blurring work and entertainment, but for those away from the medical world what is a wonderfully promising prospect doesn’t quite enter its stride.