Underlevel is a Fearful Race to Save Skeletons From Heroes
Underlevel sees us helping out monsters in a dungeon for a change. You play as a skeleton that’s trying to lead its bony pals to safety. That’s because a knight is tearing through your home, trying to get items and level up by killing your friends. It’s an interesting take on horror that turns the genre on its head, making the undead flee for a change. In doing so, it presents the average heroic video game quest in a new, sinister light.
It never occurred to me that skeletons could be nervous and frightened, but in this game, I can’t blame them. You’ll be guiding a single skeleton around a maze-like dungeon. While exploring, you’ll need to find several other skeletons spread throughout the area. If you can link up with them, they’ll begin to follow you. Not terribly reliably, but they do try to keep up. Once they’re trailing behind you, you need to lead them to the exit.
It also can’t hurt to break any pots you find along the way through Underlevel, too. Pots are filled with gems and helpful items for the hero. As they’re a classic RPG knight, they’ll gain levels as they collect valuables and kill enemies. This means that you need to grab as many skeletons and break as many pots as you can to keep the knight from getting too strong. As a skeleton minion, you do have an evil overlord at the end of the dungeon you need to protect, too. If the knight stays weak, your employer should be ok. If not, everybody loses.
Keeping everyone alive is stressful and scary. For starters, each area is a maze. A lot of the twists and turns of the halls are fairly wide open, but it’s easy to get lost. The game provides you with a compass to help you navigate, but this is mainly useful for getting your general bearings. It always points toward the stairs you need to reach to get out, so it’s still really handy. Even so, you spend a whole lot of time blindly tearing through the area trying to find loot to break and skeletons to save.
As you find skeletons and touch them, they begin to follow you throughout Underlevel. Like I said before, they don’t do a great job of it, though. If you cut corners too tightly, the computer-controlled skeletons will sometimes get stuck. They’ll curve down the wrong hall. They still seem like they’re trying to meet up with you and will reroute to get to you, but you can still easily get separated for a minute. If you took a sharp turn to avoid the knight, you might find half of your skeleton friends running the wrong way. Sometimes right toward the knight.
This makes stages feel really scrambly and frightening as your planned routes tend to fall apart quickly. You might be doing really well and then take a sharp turn, only for most of your allies to blunder right into an onrushing knight. It’s so easy to accidentally send them down the wrong path. However, if you try to be really cautious so the sksletons stick with you, you’re going to slow down. This gives the knight more opportunities to catch up. It’s easy to get screwed in this way, so you feel like you have to rush. This results in more mistakes and a constant barrage of tense moments and near-misses with the knight.
You know the knight is coming, too. Underlevel shows you the path the knight is taking through the dungeon. It’s nice to have the help, as you can see a line indicator of where the knight is going. As this is usually pointing right at you, though, it makes you want to run even more. It makes it very easy to panic, even if the line is there to keep you informed. It should have calmed me down since I KNEW where the knight was running. Something about that indicator just made me feel like the knight was always almost right on top of me. It made me more prone to panicking even though it was designed to give me information that should have calmed me down.
You also get a rear-view mirror-like view of the knight coming toward you, too. There’s a tiny screen in the bottom right that shows what the knight is doing. This further increased the tension I was feeling for several reasons. For one, I could watch the knight finding loot and skeletons that I’d missed. It basically gave me a running show that told me how much stronger my opponent was getting. You can’t help but feel that power looming over you as the knight keeps finding things that make it tougher. It also makes you feel more and more like a failure as you watch each of your screw-ups benefit your opponent in real time. It hurts, and it also made me more and more afraid of my persistent enemy. ESPECIALLY when I could see MY skeleton in the little screen. Kinda reminded me of .
Underlevel also shows where the knight is at that moment. It’s frightening to see that the knight is just a hallway or two behind you as you scramble through the dungeon. Games like Deadly Premonition and Siren have used this enemy view to let you know that your foe is right behind you. While this technically takes away some of the mystery of how close they are, I find it much more stressful to be able to see how close I am to being caught. So, seeing the knight getting close increased my tension throughout the game.
This created a loop that keep increasing my fears despite the cute art style. You have to scramble through a maze to find the loot and skeletons. It’s hard to find your way around. If you can’t find those things in time, your enemy will get stronger. If your enemy gets tougher, you’re more likely to lose the whole game. So, you rush to stay ahead. This means you get lost easier, potentially missing skeletons and loot. Even when you do get a skeleton, you might go too fast and send them down the wrong hall. So, you slow down to play more precisely and think, but this gives the knight more time to catch up. All the while, you can see the knight creeping closer on a mini-screen and see that its path is headed right toward you.
Underlevel continually increased the tension with a few design elements, ensuring you never forgot how close the knight was or how well they were doing. This, in turn, makes you doubt yourself and beat yourself up for every mistake, feeling the knight’s power growing with every screw-up. It makes for a stressful, fearful experience in facing a heroic knight that made me feel bad for all of the skeletons I’ve beaten up over the years.