I’ve played a lot of AAA games and I’ve played a lot of indie games, but I’ve never played a game quite like The Underground Man. The game is tagged as a “story rich RPG.” Although the character creation screen is reminiscent of old pen and paper sheets, this is most certainly not an RPG. The Underground Man relies on an old school vibe, similar to Kung Fury or Far Cry: Blood Dragon. Don’t be fooled, this game is a far cry from those it tries to imitate.
The best way to explain my frustration with The Underground Man is to describe my experience. The game’s store description reads:
“Moscow: Sometime in the near future. The city and perhaps the Earth’s surface has turned into a radioactive ash. Those who decided that they could not exist in such conditions began to live under the ground.”
The unusual wording of this description should have been an early warning, but I initially assumed that since the developers are independent and from Russia, that the game might have some other merit.
As the game boots up, you see the logo “Mehsoft.” That turned out to be a fairly appropriate name. The music is an oddly good throwback to early SNES games and reminiscent of Kung Fury.
Moving on to character creation, the player is treated to a whopping 36 skills including “sexuality”, “sence of humor”, “mental complexity”, and “kindness.” The player is given an enormous number of points to distribute, but all this is an exercise in futility. None of these skills do anything, they have no effect on the game. Finally, the player cannot proceed until they write a character bio at least 140 characters long.
If you manage to make it past the character creation screen, you are treated to a picture of an atomic explosion that has been distorted to look authentically 80s. Without any further introduction, you are then dropped into an underground cave opposite a robed figure. Now begins a lengthy unskippable dialogue establishing your goal.
The player is told that the people of the underground have been harvesting potatoes for years, but that the crops are starting to go bad. Therefore, the titular Underground Man must go to the surface and find corndogs as they are “food wrapped in food” and therefore safe from radiation. Should the Underground Man recover the corndogs, his people will scientifically analyze them to produce their own potato corndogs.
I actually don’t have a problem with this quirky and memetic dialogue. Not every post-apocalyptic setting has to be dark and gritty. Humor can serve as contrast to a setting’s gloom and despair.
The dialogue system here is somewhat interesting. There are no dialogue options, you have to type out your answers. If you have no idea what to type, you’re allowed three hints that will show you the possible responses for the conversation. In the tutorial this amounts to “Yes,” “No,” and “____”
Over the next five minutes, the player is told that the last person sent to the surface went crazy from the radiation sickness and returned wearing women’s underwear. The tutorial NPC goes on to say that after trying to kiss another man, the previous explorer was beaten to death with shovel before the tribe urinated on his corpse. This is real. This is actually in the game.
After 10 minutes, the player is finally given a sense of control. They’re told to move to the right side of the room by holding “D”. If you fail to do this or if you press any button other than “D” the tutorial NPC will call you a failure and you’ll be sent back to the main menu. There’s no save system (though you do periodically receive checkpoints if you pass the tutorial), so although you can ignore the useless skills, you still have to write 140 character bio before starting again. Once you start over, you’ll have to wait through another 10 minutes of scrolling text before you can reattempt the tutorial. If you manage to pass the movement challenge, you’ll be asked to jump. You’ll be asked to jump over a dozen times. If you just mash the spacebar, you’ll be sent back to the main menu.
Should you pass the movement section, you’ll be allowed to fight a radroach. If you lasted this long, you’ll realize that the game is merely a 2D beat ‘em up. Your health bar is represented by three hearts in the top left corner of the screen. After the fighting tutorial, you’ll learn how to pick up items. Again, if you don’t perform perfectly, you’ll be sent back to the main menu.
In the unlikely event that you pass the tutorial, you’ll find yourself walking across a few dozen empty wasteland screens before meeting the game’s only companion. Trap is the female(ish) sidekick whose dialogue consists almost entirely of rumors about what’s between her legs. So long as Trap accompanies the player, she will shoot at enemies with an energy weapon.
The further you get into the “story”, the more reminiscent the gameplay is of NES shovelware. Everything that touches you removes one of your three hit points. Getting pooped on by a bird does the same damage as being punched by a zombie. Toward the end of the game, the player must engage in precision platforming across a lake of instant-killing green slime (filled with leaping piranhas). Additionally, there’s a short 2.5D driving section in a hovercraft (with holographic legs).
Despite its large number of locations, The Underground Man is horrifically padded. Much of the game is simply walking across multiple empty screen. Although this makes the wasteland feel big and empty, it doesn’t accomplish anything. The original Fallout didn’t make you walk across a dozen screens of wasteland, but it still gave players a sense of scale. The Underground Man could have relied on in-game cutscenes to transition between zones. Instead, they made the game longer. This is especially horrendous near the previously mentioned platforming section which requires the player not only to get across the acid lake, but then travel back in a single attempt. As it stands, the game is about 5 hours long (mistakes included). If you could skip the tutorial, fast forward through dialogue, and never made a mistake the game would probably be about an hour long.
There’s nothing wrong with a joke game (even one that relies on memetic humor), so long as it has some redeeming quality. Even silly nonsensical games can be fun. Adult Swim’s Jazzpunk is an incredibly simple game, but it knows how to entertain. Steam reviews suggest that this game was made for the purpose of trolling and that an understanding of Russian humor is required to understand the dialogue.
I just don’t understand why The Underground Man was made, especially since most players will immediately request a refund. I’m reminded of Penn and Teller’s: Smoke and Mirrors (you may know it as the infamous Desert Bus), a fake game that only exists to frustrate. The difference is that Smoke and Mirrors was a multiplayer game meant to annoy and confuse your friends. The Underground Man is a punchline without a joke.