Friday, March 6, 2020

Underhero (NSW, PS4, XB1, PC) Review

This month we have a pair of indie game's featuring playable underlings who just want their chance to shine. SPC has the first of these games with Underhero, part platformer, part Paper Mario-like RPG from Paper Castle Games. Let's take a look at the game with the SPC review!

A minion's moment to shine

Creativity and the indie scene go together like peanut butter and jelly, salad and ranch dressing, and pepperoni and pizza. The two are synonymous with one another, and the point keeps getting hammered home with release after release from these super talented studios and small teams. The gang at Paper Castle Games is but one of these teams, and while their game Underhero might seem like yet another 2D pixel-based indie release, the game makes a terrific name for itself with a clever RPG/platformer hybrid that plays around with genre conventions in a truly smart way.

Yes, Underhero is a satirical take on the RPG genre, having you begin the game as a hero on his way to encounter the big bad boss of the game and take him out, as the prophecy says. But, when things don't exactly go the way the prophecy is supposed to, and the hero dies, a generic underling is essentially ordered to take his place. Without going into too much detail as to spoil the story, Underhero's tale turns the RPG genre on its head and constantly pokes fun at the genre's conventions, often in clever ways. This is helped by some really smart dialogue and humorous scenarios featuring abundantly charming and quirky characters. My favorite of the bunch happens to be a moth with a split-personality, one a regal snob and the other a dimwitted child, complete with music changes when each personality takes over and speaks.

Will our hero have all the answers here or be completely clueless?
Throughout my 10 hour adventure with Underhero I was smiling, enjoy the ride, and finding myself amazed at what the folks at Paper Castle Games were able to do with their small team. The final area and boss of the adventure perfectly encapsulated the abundance of creativity on display in the game, and was just a majorly impressive way to cap off the adventure, even if it wasn't mechanically perfect.

Underhero is part platformer and part RPG. The platforming in Underhero is a bit too loose and slippery for my liking, and this caused me to initially miss plenty of basic jumps or slide off platforms too easily. With enough practice, missed jumps were less of a commonality, but the point still stands that you're not going to get Mario quality tightness in controls when it comes to platforming with Underhero.

Sliding off platforms and missing what should have been simple jumps
 plagued my early experiences with Underhero.
There are five worlds in Underhero, and the first three take you to different kingdoms ruled by various bosses in order to hand back mystical and mythical MacGuffins to them. Of course, nothing is that simple, and there are plenty of platforming puzzles and just puzzles in general to encounter along the way that make what should be simple missions more complicated and convoluted. That's not to say that in a negative way. While one world requires you to make a roundabout way to reach the top of a tree, another requires you to enter a maze to acquire the right pepper to reach a volcano. This is all the while the occasional mini-game rears its enjoyable head in, ranging from rhythm-based ice skating to skateboarding down a hill as a rampaging beast pursues closely behind.

As I grew more accustomed to the platforming physics, though,
moments of missed jumps were lessened (but not completely eliminated).
Really, the only negative I can muster about some of the scenarios in Underhero is that there's a modest but occasionally tedious amount of backtracking with no option to fast travel when you're within a world. Neither is there an option to view how many treasures you've missed within a world, so if you wish to complete the game 100% or max out your stats, you will encounter some trouble. As you can imagine, the backtracking through long-winded platforming sections for treasure and to just reach desired destinations can seriously grate on the nerves.

Underhero utilizes a combat system heavily inspired by the Paper Mario series, but given its own unique spin from Paper Castle Games. Battles initiate by coming into close proximity to an enemy and then beginning combat. Instead of having to take turns, you have a stamina meter that depletes upon attacking. A simple sword swipe for ground enemies or use of a slingshot for aerial foes will take less stamina points to use than a hulking hammer shot. The stamina gauge slowly recharges, and you can find upgrades that lower the cost of stamina for certain weapons' attacks.

Don't let this fellow minion make a monkey out of you, hero!
When it revolves around defending, stamina also comes into play as a factor. You need at least two stamina points to be able to jump or duck to avoid attacks. If you don't have enough stamina, your character is too pooped to do anything and will be vulnerable to attack, so it's a strategic game of not overexerting yourself or getting too greedy by attacking so much that when it comes time to dodge, you are unable to do so.

Meanwhile, while dodging itself doesn't use up stamina, successful evading of enemy attacks refills part of your stamina meter more quickly than just letting it recover by itself. Like the Paper Mario series, enemies generally have tells on when they're going to attack. Some of these tells are more helpful than others. For instance, the first enemy you encounter in Underhero will blink twice before performing an attack that requires you to jump over it and will stick out its tongue before performing an attack that requires you to duck it to avoid it.

Much like Paper Mario, timing is everything in avoiding attacks in Underhero.
Not too far in your adventure you'll gain new weapons alongside your simple sword. The slingshot is necessary to ward off flying foes and the hammer is terrific for dealing heavy damage but takes a while to wind up and use. Then, there's the defensive shield, which is perfect in a pinch for parrying enemy attacks, mainly projectiles that can be blocked right back into enemies for damage. Blocking requires you to time when you pull out your shield just right, or else your shield will take damage. Some attacks cannot be parried at all and will result in you or your shield taking the brunt of the blow. Your shield can break in battle, leaving you with one less method of defending yourself, but shields can be repaired with anvils found in treasure chests strewn about the world and more reliably purchased from a reoccurring peddler in the game.

Finally, when all else fails and you just find a foe to trying to face, you can always go the politician route and bribe them with coins. By filling a gauge completely with coins, you'll successfully bribe an enemy, not only giving you experience but a pass from fighting them. I didn't utilize this method too much because while experience is still rewarded, coins seemed to be a finite resource that could be better spent on upgrades at the hub world's shop, such as health increases, potion storage upgrades, and more. Though some enemy encounters I found when on way too long and tested my patience, so I would bribe these particular enemies just to avoid a three minute encounter.

Overall, I'd say combat in Underhero is just like the premise of the game itself--it's creative and works well enough. It helps that battles play into the premise of the game as well as one of its major themes--one that I won't dare spoil as it would ruin the overarching narrative of the game. Some battles do get drawn out to the point of tedium, and once an enemy has been bested, they're gone for good with no real way to "grind" for experience in the game. This is not a major problem because the difficulty for the most part is balanced enough that you seldom find yourself with your back against the wall challenge-wise. Well, that's save for the second world of the game, which I found to be a big jump in difficulty just in how enemies attacked and how I had to learn more complicated timing to avoid them.

While most encounters play out the same, it's when you face off against bosses that battles open up considerably and delight even more so. All revolve around platforming to avoid enemy attacks while waiting for the appropriate opening to close in and attack the boss's health gauge. Some bosses require you to simply dodge their offensive outbursts before they finally tire themselves out, while others ask you to use your noggin to the point where battles become like puzzles. These boss battles were one of the greater highlights of Underhero for me.

Ah, a boss after my own self-conscious heart...
Another highlight is the game's presentation, and I've already spoken highly of the game's story and the way it weaves its satire like a string to sew an impeccably designed quilt with patches of humorous and heartfelt moments. Nevertheless, the art on display between the character sprites and impressive backgrounds and environments are truly well done, offering a superb and clean look to them. The music is as worthy of being put under the spotlight due to its memorable melodies and accompanying the environments and scenarios well.

Underhero falters with its platforming not being as precise as I would like, featuring some tedious backtracking too, and some battles being overly lengthy and repetitious affairs. However, those negatives are just drops in a bucket compared to the copious amounts of positives the game possesses. Between the often humorous and witty story, dialogue and characters, tremendously creative boss battles, and overly engaging battle system, Underhero is an overachiever in many senses of the word.

[SPC Says: B]

A code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.

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