Developer: Thorium Entertainment | Publisher: Thorium Entertainment | Genre: Action-Adventure Roguelike | Platforms: Mac, Windows, Xbox One | Reviewed On: Xbox One
UnderMine is the ultimate dopamine drip. On my second run through the UnderMine, it was immediately apparent that this was my new obsession. As I ventured in and collected as much gold as possible with my trusty pickaxe, I eventually died fairly early on – as expected in any roguelike. Yet, I came out with a new shopkeeper. He set up shop in the mine’s hub world, offering to craft relics for me and provide upgrades for my revolving door of peasants. Each subsequent run provided the traditional roguelike setup: start weak and grow stronger through collecting a variety of relics. With each run, you master the mechanics and attack patterns of enemies. What makes UnderMine stand out and have the lasting impact it does, is the incorporation of rogue-lite elements that make every subsequent run slightly easier than the first and gives each one a different purpose.
Players control a peasant who goes into the procedurally generated UnderMine on the quest for gold, power, and to stop the source of problems plaguing the mine. The broad strokes of the story are bare, but as you delve deeper into the mine the cast of characters increases, each with their own unique benefits to the player. I found someone who was not able to return to their shop until they found three mushrooms growing in the mine. Of course, aiding the wandering soul opened up a new set of items that could be crafted to find on subsequent runs of the game. The game’s repeating roguelike mechanics work in tandem with the roguelike progression, providing a constant feeling that every run is worthwhile – even when it seems hopelessly lost.
Direct comparisons to The Binding of Isaac are fairly apt. UnderMine doesn’t hide this either, with rooms hidden on each floor, relics that increase a stat or provide an ability, or a shop to purchase food, items like keys and bombs, or potions (the equivalent to pills in The Binding of Isaac, though their effects are never hidden and almost always positive) and relics. There is even the mechanic of sacrificing some life in order to potentially benefit. Where this game differs is even in the most brutal runs, it feels more weighted towards the player. Curses are the main threat to your peasant as they strip away stats or occasionally present more severe consequences. Yet, even the most harmful curse can be removed. Almost every hindrance put on the player is a minor inconvenience, shrugged off relatively easily.
Each run boils down to clearing four areas before fighting the boss and proceeding to the next level (or bypassing the boss entirely if you can find a shortcut). Armed with just a pickaxe that can do melee and ranged damage, players run through each area collecting relics and items to buff their stats. Each level is its own unique environment with distinct hazards and enemies. The main objective when going through each area is to power yourself up by collecting relics and gold. Spend that gold at shops for more power-ups, or save it for when you eventually die. UnderMine stands out because its roguelike elements are fun enough, but it’s the constant sense of progression that provides a far greater sense of accomplishment and fulfills a stronger power fantasy.
This is where comparisons to games like Rogue Legacy bear more fruit. Each time your peasant dies, a portion of the gold they were carrying is given to the next peasant. Spend that gold on permanent upgrades that persist between peasants, new familiars to help you through the dungeon, or items to help your next immediate delve. For a decent stretch of the game, the UnderMine becomes a means of getting back to the hub. I would dive into setting a goal for myself where the benefit would be for the overall meta and not the current run. Occasionally that short-term goal would change based on how the run is going, but the endpoint was always the same: the next peasant reaps the benefits.
With five different levels to the UnderMine, it took roughly 23 hours for me to defeat every boss and witness credits. However, the game has its own New Game+, allowing players to continue adventuring through the UnderMine. It also unlocks the OtherMine. This mode is your more traditional roguelike as nothing carries over between peasants – everything you do in that run is gone once you die. The OtherMine is an interesting distraction from the core gameplay loop. Players are stripped of their upgrades when they go in and are given a few choices of starting blessings, relics, and items to carry into the mine. From there it’s a randomized set of previous levels, enemies, and a boss at the end of every three areas. Consider this the more challenging mode as everything seems stronger, providing players who relied on their permanent upgrades a significant challenge, while those who mastered the core mechanics will have a slightly easier time mastering the OtherMine.
Dressed up in a nice coat of whimsy and satire, the game is endearing in almost every regard. Cute creatures called pilfers try to steal gold while you race to collect it and characters make fun of other characters behind their backs. It’s a shame that the overarching story isn’t more prevalent, though roguelikes like this often sacrifice narrative knowing only so much can be done without a persistent main character. The dressing that is there is sufficient and does a decent job fleshing out the supporting cast of characters further. It just doesn’t make enough of an impact to set that aspect of the game apart from others in the genre. It even has a soundtrack that feels reminiscent of other roguelikes – infectious, yes, but also rarely exceptional.
The only real problem with UnderMine is that once I finished the main game, every other run felt more and more trivial. The core gameplay loop is in service of the meta, but once that’s taken away, there isn’t much more to do that feels as important as that did. The relics, while all different, only rarely change up the way you play the game in any significant way. For example, you might detect more secret rooms from a relic you pick up, but that just means carrying a few more bombs than usual. Maybe now gold can duplicate, but then you’re just picking it up for a longer period of time. It’s the combination of relics that offer the most interesting tweaks to how a player will behave. throwing a pickaxe might ricochet off enemies, potentially igniting them until it comes back to you only to let off a surge of lightning to nearby enemies. Compounding the effects of relics is the most fun aspect during a single run.
The game’s biggest weakness is really that it’s almost always in the player’s favor. The randomization of relics in a run can slightly change the player’s behavior and how they approach a combat scenario, but it is never a negative impact. Whereas curses offer some difficulty, it is extremely rare for them to be debilitating in any severe way (unless you get the dreaded teleport curse, then you better get rid of it as soon as possible). Some runs I could have 6 or 7 curses and not feel any impact from it because I have so many more blessings and relics. If I died, I feel more like I died because of carelessness than I did by the restraints placed on me.
This is only a small flaw in an otherwise fantastic game. The number of secrets to discover whether they are relics, rooms, or characters is impressive. UnderMine encourages exploration because it rarely hurts the player to do so. In fact, it’s almost always beneficial in those first twenty or so hours to look through every nook and cranny of an area. There’s a magic to UnderMine that doesn’t get old until you’ve technically beaten it, in which case, it’s a great time while it lasts. If the desire to play continues, there’s plenty more to do, it just doesn’t have the same lasting influence over the game. That wonderful feeling during a run persists, but it never really amounts to much once you’ve finished it.