“Underhero Demo” Review
Verdict: 3/5 stars. Lacking a sharp edge to its existence, appearing as just another retro indie game waiting to be played by fans blinded by nostalgia, it’s downfall is how devoid it is of modern sensibilites.
Life is cyclical, and it’s funny how it happens. First you see the world full of wonder and awe, then you realise it’s all boring and banal, and then you alternate between those two states every six months until the early grave. This game is a microcosm of all that life stuff, where I thought it was banal, then wondrous, then back to banal and now I’m just sitting here trying to dissect it post – mortem. Underhero, you’re an organ donor, right? You’d have to be given how little is in you. Arf – arf!
So that’s the game we’re looking at. No, it’s not about Undertale, shut up. Get out. Never come back. But like Undertale there are a lot of similarities. On the surface – level, it seems all cheery and gleefully innocent, until an edgy subversion where somebody gets dieded changes the whole mood and… well, actually, the mood doesn’t change much at all. The atmosphere for this game goes from stereotypical Nintendo writing, a brief foray into the disturbing, and then back to stereotypical Nintendo writing. At least with Undertale there was some edge for the weeaboo schoolgirls to chew on, like how Elfen Lied is a flaming pile of trash even though it had some juicy bits. Here there’s no edge, no auteur – driven personality to get attached to, and no cheap morality play in order for us to feel bad for partaking in the stock RPG tropes like EXP and LOVE — or should I say, Execution Points and Level of Violence. Hah, I just spoiled Undertale two years too late! Yeah, read it and weep, 0.3% of the audience.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at the dev log — and oh, this is disheartening: “We have worked on this thing for 4 years now, and after a lot of hardships developing this game in our country, after so many restless nights, this is the first time in those 4 years that we actually feel like we are going to make it.” First off, how did it take you four years to make this? Did you spend all your time tweaking the particle effects while also making some significant dick – to – hand contact? Or did your egalitarian development structure — and I know it’s egalitarian because every dev team is — make you spend weeks trying to agree on the most rudimentary outline of what this game will be? After all, it’s not like this game lifted ideas from every other game and only needed to code in what they were doing — oh wait.
Second, assuming you started development back in 2013, how and when did you expect to sell this bloody game? Did you anticipate the gigantic digital revolution where buy – once PC games are now a niche rather than the norm? How about the four years of industry shit – shoveling where every manufacturer competes for the title of “greatest case study for anti – capitalism”, leading to distrust in all forms of video games and a subsequent decline in interest from outside names? How about the Indie Golden Age where any old idiot can now publish a game on Itch.io, and as a result are forced to compete in an oversaturated dogfight with each other to see who can appeal to the lowest – bottom – denominator trash responsible for titles like Minecraft, Undertale, Five Nights at Freddy’s, and that fucking paper clip game? If you were betting the bank on this title, I’m sorry, but you’d be better off starting a snow shoveling business in Nunavut — and it never stops snowing! Never!
And it keeps on coming
Underhero is about a cartoonishly overpowered and generic video game hero coming to beat up a generic big bad guy while he wipes the floor with his generic minions and his somewhat unsettling sword – hilt sidekick, not to mistaken for a robot as I did mistake it. You wander into the castle, come face to face with some scrubs, and then get absolutely annihilated into a pile of blood and bones thanks to a bigass chandelier. The commander of such chandelier? Why, it was you! No, not the hero, the other you. The shy – guy looking scrub who straight up murders his comrades because, honestly, what else is there to do on a Thursday night?
I like to spend a lot of time in the beginning stages of games so I can investigate every aspect of their decor, mechanics, controls, material designs, AI flaws, and so on. As a consequence, I have a lot of time to think about all the ills that are presented to me; for instance, the Hilarious® dialogue between the two minions: “You know we’re just cannon fodder, right? We’re just here to like, drop some potions or something”. Yeah. It’s not like Nintendo was making this exact same joke twenty years earlier, but no, no! Welcome to the twentieth century, Underhero. Please accept your complimentary zoot suit and five – foot rope. You’ll need that for the Negroes.
I also had some time to reminisce over the game’s æsthetics, and how uncanny it is to see spritework propped up against modern particles, palettes, and lighting effects. I don’t know when it became trendy to abuse particle systems for earth, air, fire, water, and sometimes wood and metal, but when one is making a deliberate throwback to the Games of Olde, it always looks unsettling to see the slick and smooth capabilities of modern engines, and also Unity, against hand – pixeled animation that looks like it belongs on the Sega Master System. And yet, despite the only game having done this effect well being Minecraft, the unsophisticated masses, unaware of such concepts as æsthetic cohesion, praise these effects as new and innovative, when in reality they are as old as the engines themselves and look out – of – place at their best and lazy at their worst. Especially so, given how one of the effects is a bunch of purple dots in front of the world. Perhaps it’s symbolic of some sort of plague.
And it keeps on coming
But forget about the art style; it works, it has its charms, the monsters are all beefy and minimalistically well – designed, and the whole of the game is similar to, but not entirely unlike, something you might find any other indie developer crapping out. Congratulations on being like everybody else, I guess, if that was what you’re going for. The sad thing about the art is how much inspiration it blatantly takes from Nintendo titles like Paper Mario without having the same coy and cutesy art style those games are famous for. With Underhero, it is not the whole that one thinks about when praising their art, but the collection of pieces that make the whole. The parallax scrolling, the dust movement effects, and the forced dynamic lighting are all just pomp and set dressing. But at the same time, this set dressing gives us joys like the cartoonish typefaces, the variety of mob designs, the little faces the monsters make when you just FUCK their shit up, and the levels looking not at all like crap and indeed make for good screenshots. It would seem this game was created by artists undisciplined, anonymous in their legions, making something that represents “video game” without pushing the boundaries of what that term invokes.
The same for the writing, too, so free of sleaze — so free of personality! And yet I am presented it regardless. You see, video games are past the point of sincerity, where games must now be ironic lest they be seen as old – fashioned. We can no longer have princesses as easily – replaceable as sexy lamps being picked up by cartoon characters with niche superpowers, and if one does have that, it must always be with a wink and a nod and some notes about female empowerment. As with the rest of society, we are also past the point of postmodernism, where fourth – wall breaking games are now seen as passé after everyone and their mother pulled the old “the game is sentient” trick one too many times, as well as other tricks like ambiguous morality and reality – bending storylines. Nowadays the trend is throwing back to old games, remaking our childhood heroes with all we know in the modern age, and as a result of which developers end up forced to copy ancient jokes — because while we are copying everything else, we might as well pull up a bunch of dated tropes and claim it as satire, despite “satire” implying more intelligent prose than just sarcastically referencing things.
As for gameplay, we seem to be past the idea of “unique selling points” and are now fully attached to the idea of “REMEMBER THIS?”, where tried – and – true gameplay concepts are regurgitated and are being retested for modern palates, see Cuphead, Stardew Valley, and every other indie game devoid of ideas and so parasitically rip off their ancestors. But this parasitism is of benefit to the industry, as to say that certain ideas are arbitrarily banned from being reproduced is the source of much of our world’s evils, such as the copyright monopoly, digital restrictions mechanisms, and the endless patent war of attrition between trolls and actual inventors. Underhero’s gameplay is unique in its combat, though a slow grind overall, where the exploration finds nothing of interest and the need to revisit areas makes the walking speed a real headshaker. Developers: it’s not enough to put some chests underwater and expect us to throw ourselves at them. Our time, and not our virtual goods, is of most value to us. What do you offer to make your game worth spending our time on? And please, don’t tell me it’s potions.
This game gave me a lot to think about. The gameplay, as little as there is in favour of a bunch of walking around, works fine, and I expect it to work better in the later levels as everything gets complicated — and if it doesn’t get complicated, then the game will have failed to rip off Nintendo’s competently – arranged difficulty curve. But the gameplay is not too important to me, as I see games as art and not distractions, where the beauty in games is not in how much they mindlessly entertain you, but in how well all its many complicated parts, like the minute gears in a mechanical watch, cohere together and make something brilliant that makes you wish you had made it. Gameplay is but one gear in the machinery, and as for the rest? They keep you thinking. The gameplay keeps you playing — and thinking of it is for the developers of games.
It is sad that Underhero is a product of ages past, where one can work on making an extraordinary game for several years and then sell it all at once, instead of piecemeal as DLC, and instead of being another freemium skinner box title as one must make to be profitable in the New Tens. One is forced to treat their customers as proles to earn fame and fortune, to slot the easily – manipulatable into cults and fandoms, and then weaponise them to ensure a steady supply of good press and greater profits. I could be wrong, and this game might be a huge success, ethical in every way beyond being proprietary software. But on the balance of probabilities of it being successful, I will place my bets on its eventual failure. After all, for every indie success story, there are twenty other starving developers, and it is a cruel industry who produces such odds.
Underhero seems to me a pipe dream past its time, where I recall a period where titles like it could exist and not be seen as just another easily – interchangeable indie game in a sea of hundreds. There is some hope with the success of Cuphead, Undertale, et al, where the most popular games are now the ones with the most appeal and not the ones with the biggest companies behind them, and where titles are now forced to have some originality to be a smash hit. But is this title original, on the whole, and not just in its separate pieces of brilliance? I wouldn’t say so. And the real tragedy is the development team, treating this game as their child of light, putting so much effort into a title that has so much going against it.
I suggest playing this game if you want to have a crisis about a medium that you love and end up hating the modern world even more. Hell, you might even have fun. Wait, what’s that foreign word? Fun? Oh, why can’t I just be a stupid teenager again and see everything as fun! Why am I cursed to think? Another part of life is seeing how many natural processes are designed to keep you alive, and how incompatible they are with the hedonic, instant – gratification society we live in now. We evolved in a different time for a different way of life… and Underhero, like us, is struggling to keep up with these times.