Undergrave is a charming fighter who moves when you move

Undergrave is a charming fighter who moves when you move

Undergrave reminds me a lot of Fights in Tight Spaces, which is a good thing. It’s a turn-based combat game where enemies move as you move, so if you move a tile, the enemies move a tile, and if they end up next to you, you’ll get hit – and you have about eight shot-points so you can’t take much punishment. If you die, it’s back to the beginning.

There are no cards in the game, like in Fights in Tight Spaces, but you do have abilities. You can dash, jump, and throw your sword, assuming you have enough action points, and while these are powerful moves, there are downsides to using them. Throw your sword and you have to go get it, for example, and dash carelessly and you’ll end up in trouble – you can’t choose how many spaces you go through.

Again, you can dash through a line of enemies, which is incredibly satisfying. Like a samurai in a bamboo forest, you move and then watch as the two halves of the enemies’ bodies split apart. It’s also very satisfying to jump on someone’s head, kill them if they’re a weaker enemy, while knocking back and stunning enemies around you. Jumping is awesome but it’s an expensive ability to use.

Honestly, I threw in the start of this fight to show you how easy it is to get hit. Note how stuck I get once enemies are next to me – I have to jump to get out. I’m much better on my second round!

These abilities can also be modded – upgraded, depreciated – and you can layer passive abilities that increase your survivability, such as regenerating AP after being hit. So that’s the character building part, and you have to do it every four battles, choosing between two abilities or a heal, normally.

And usually that’s it. Undergrave is quite small in terms of what it offers (it’s also a tiny 80MB). But good things come in small packages. There’s a simplicity here that’s immediately appealing because within moments you’ve figured out what to do and are playing. But of course, figuring out how to do it well is something that studies enemy behavior and knows what to use and when, and how to play to save time when action points recharge. It can be deceptively difficult.

What a beautiful garden. Note how claustrophobic the battles can be. You have to anticipate because you can be cornered quickly.

I say “deceptively” because it’s presented in such a low, adorable, thrifty way – there’s hardly any graphic clutter or extravagance – it doesn’t seem like it should be mean. True character shines through. It’s almost as if the game was drawn by a young child because of the sincere naivety of its appearance. It is charming.

Underneath, however, is sophistication. It’s in the tight layers of strategy that start to emerge, and how the game moves and behaves. The sword is nice to swing, the animations have a crisp feel.

A prime room in Undergrave, where you can modify abilities or heal yourself.  Three pooled blood pedestals represent the choices and are zoomed in on the screen.

A small gray tiled playground, on which our pixelated hero and several enemies stand - zombies, rats and a flying thing.

A prime time and level earlier in the game – note my overall progress on the pip line at the top.

What I wonder is how much stamina he has. I found it a bit of a note after an hour or two. I got to a boss and it was a little disappointing after an imaginative start, and unlocked a new area that looked different and had new enemies, but they didn’t really make a big difference.

What it lacks, for me, is another overlapping system to combine with what’s there and give that dizzying sense of everything coming together on one big run. Think of the relics knitted with your deck in Slay the Spire, or the many modifications you can make to abilities in Hades. Undergrave can feel a little lean in this area, a little modest. But maybe that’s the game – a game about consistent precision and careful play rather than flashy big moments. And that’s good, it’s still captivating, but it can also sometimes be a little dry.

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