Five years ago, the indie gaming scene changed forever with the release of Subtitle, a sort of “Anti-RPG” that focused as much on mocking traditional RPG tropes as on celebrating them. Suffice it to say it resonated with a lot of people and it’s clear that the unique and unconventional design had no small effect on UnderHero. Still, it wouldn’t be fair to refer to UnderHero, which released on Switch in February 2020, as “ just ” straddling the coattails of more well-known games. It’s truly an experience that demonstrates mastery of the game mechanics it executes, making it an indie game that you shouldn’t ignore right away.
UnderHero takes just the end of a standard RPG, in which you control the hero as he walks through the main antagonist’s castle for the final battle. However, things are quickly interrupted when a random minion drops a chandelier on the hero and kills him. From there you play as the servant as he embarks on his own quest to return the three macguffins collected to unlock the castle. Along the way, he is guided by a hilt of a magical talking sword that belonged to the deceased hero, which encourages the minion to free himself from his boss’s wishes and be his own hero.
It’s a fascinating premise to begin with, and its execution is greatly enhanced by the kind of tongue-in-cheek writing that borrows liberally from Undertale’s playbook. Much of your quest as a servant is a general video game and role-playing show, frequently poking fun at such conventions while breaking the fourth wall a lot. A first sequence sees your servant needing to access the upper levels of a tree that he cannot reach by jumping. The solution is to take an elevator, but a fuse is missing, which triggers a series of increasingly ridiculous and contrived recovery quests to get the fuse. This is all for naught, however, as he soon floods the tree with beer and swims. It’s frequent moments like this that keep the narrative light and engaging, encouraging you to play further just to see what other quirky storylines and characters you come across.
The gameplay looks like a mix between a Metroidvania and one Paper mario game, which makes for a well-rounded experience. Most of your time is spent navigating 2D worlds and making your way through a myriad of obstacles, all the while collecting upgrades and the occasional coins along the way. Upgrades improve parameters like your health or attack stats, while coins can be spent in the “Evil Store” for potions, weapon upgrades, and more. This creates a strong feedback loop of the continued growth in power favored by exploration, although one downside is the lack of an easily accessible map system. Maze dungeons are not also difficult to analyze, but you can only look at a map on fixed signs along the way, making navigation unnecessarily more difficult if you get lost. There were a few times where we wasted a few minutes going around in circles before we found the right path, which wouldn’t have been a problem if the map was still accessible. Still, the problem never became more than an irritation, and the enemy encounters helped break up any monotony.
Most of the world has enemies patrolling, and that’s where the Paper Mario bit comes in. Your minion can attack at any time, but their actions are governed by a slow regenerating stamina bar that decreases by a fixed amount for each share. Linked to this is your ability to dodge as well, meaning you have to constantly weigh the cost of an attack against the likelihood of your enemy hitting before you can regenerate enough stamina. You can use a shield to block or parry damage regardless of your stamina, but the shield can only take a certain number of hits before it needs to be repaired, and the timing of a parry is narrower than a standard dodge. .
Whether you are on offense or defense, the combat system is based on skillfully timing your button presses, with correct presses rewarding you with better results. Dodge an enemy attack at the right time and your stamina gauge will temporarily recharge at a faster rate, allowing you to perform more attacks in a shorter window. Then, for your attacks, the timing is based on the beat of the music, where hits that land on the beat will deal more damage. Each enemy has different strengths and weaknesses, along with a variety of cues that indicate which attack will follow, making it a combat system that remains pleasantly dynamic no matter where you are in the story.
Your minion has a variety of attacks available to them, each intended for use in different situations. A quick cut with the sword is your standard attack, but it also has a slingshot to hit those high-flying enemies. And if you think you have a little bit of time before the next attack comes from your enemy, you can choose to use the slow, yet powerful, hammer to do massive damage. It’s usually pretty clear which tool should be used when, which leaves the feeling that perhaps more depth could have been explored with this setup, but it’s perfectly satisfactory in practice. Our only complaint, however, is that the slingshot controls prove to be unnecessarily sensitive, making it more painful to use on your other weapons.
As for its presentation, UnderHero uses a rather unique look that doesn’t feel enough like pixel art, although it clearly borrows a lot from this visual style. In any case, each environment is intensely detailed and rich in color, with simply animated sprites that convey the little peculiarities of the personality well. Everything seems to be working fine, although we have noticed occasional graphics glitches from time to time. There were a couple of occasions where a jump that should barely have landed on a platform apparently caused it to slip through its edge and fall, or get caught in a space that wasn’t wide enough to fall. would cause our servant trembling madly as he was suspended in the air. Such instances are rare, but they do appear every now and then, indicating that maybe one more pass for polish may have been in order before UnderHero went gold.
Despite minor flaws in presentation and control, UnderHero turns out to be a rewarding experience that often surprises with its ingenuity and writing. It’s not exactly a “ go out and buy it now ” genre of game, but if you love the sound you probably won’t be disappointed with the content on offer here. It’s not perfect, but a well-paced story, an engaging combat system, and a gorgeous world make UnderHero a game that rarely disappoints, and we recommend it to anyone looking for a good “ deep cut ” for their game. Switch library.