This has been the year of me playing games I’d usually never pick up and going, “Wow, this is a good game!” So let me begin this review with this — Undernauts: Labyrinth of Yomi is a good game that fell completely under my radar. From developer Experience, Undernauts is your typical dungeon RPG, but that doesn’t mean it’s your average DRPG. With an incredibly detailed gameplay system and an openness that surprised me, Undernauts manages to be an incredibly full and easy to understand game with only a few hiccups.
Undernauts begins with a theatrical opening that is voice acted in Japanese and subbed in English. Out of nowhere, a mysterious labyrinth appeared, full of resources and monsters. Named “Yomi,” it became the prime spot for undernauts to explore and mine… at a cost. As with most businesses built around dangerous work, only a select few are tasked with going into Yomi. Your character is a part of the Cassandra group, tasked with a job that no one else seems to want. But at least it pays a lot. Unfortunately, your entire team is wiped out by a small monster. Thus the journey begins.
I genuinely enjoyed the way Undernauts chose to introduce its world. The voice acting was quiet, but fierce, and moments of violence played out at full volume and with a black screen. A game can say a lot with a little. Despite the artwork in Undernauts being absolutely gorgeous, something like fear and horror can easily feel cheesy when the presentation doesn’t match the tone. The proper set up is there.
Moving into the character creation process was very easy. Undernauts does a great job at hand-holding in the opening moments of the game as you get acclimated to all its various systems. What begins as a very straightforward creator where you can pick from 4 archetypes — male, grizzled, young and female protagonists — opens up as you go deeper into developing them. From there you can change your name and nickname, add a character bio and go in to pick a job, background and trinket. All of these things essentially add up to your skills, stats and stat buffs. This system applies to anyone you add to your party as well.
The customization is greatly appreciated, and the aforementioned hand-holding was necessary. This was my first venture into an Experience game, and not once did I feel overwhelmed with all the options. Going back to those four archetypes, they have seemingly no effect on what your character looks like. At the end of making each one, you can pick what your character’s appearance. The options range from a Stardom-esque woman wrestler to a Demon Chief. Everyone has different variants as well. It’s a lot.
So, about that art style. It’s amazing. The first shot of characters shocked me with its almost painterly style. Still image cutscenes, despite the horror in the game, are beautifully drawn. And while in-game backgrounds sometimes look flat, key story pieces and character sprites are detailed.
As for what the game is truly about, dungeon exploring is a varied experience. Before combat is even introduced, you have to make your way through the labyrinth to get back to camp and report the deaths of your team. Movement and navigation are so clunky during these portions. It’s to the point where I can’t even chalk it up to dungeon design. Rather than immersing you into the feeling of being lost in a cave, you end up feeling like you’re just learning to walk. Trying to hit the areas marked for enemies was like circling an extremely small dot on the ground.
Undernauts makes up for the horrible movement with an interesting take on combat. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a turn-based dungeon-crawler. That aspect is about as traditional as you can get. What really makes it a point of notice is the enemy design and player interaction through what the game calls Yomi Flowers. Enemies range from cute, small, rodent-like creatures to truly grotesque monsters. You never know what you’ll get. You can also interact with some enemies before fighting them. Sometimes that means your entire party is fully healed or restored. Other times, you lose the chance to attack and have to fight hard to survive.
The combat system in Undernauts was easy to understand but rather difficult to master. Beyond the turn-based aspect, each member defaults to either a Vanguard or Rear Guard position. Vanguards essentially end up being the tanks and taking the brunt of enemy attacks. Prior to realizing this, my poor magic users were taking constant one-hit kills as I set my party up to be more varied in formation. Combat felt more weighted, and the choices I made behind the scenes mattered just as much as the choices I made in battle. My experience never felt stale.
The dungeon itself isn’t an entirely preset environment either. Those aforementioned Yomi Flowers take on multiple roles and names. They allow you to teleport though the dungeon, build bridges and open doors, or even spawn enemies that challenge your party. You create and destroy these flowers, and throughout the game you’ll begin to unlock more options. By limiting your access to them, the game forces you to backtrack, but rewards the tediousness with an entirely new area to explore. Undernauts provides you with such a large dungeon and having the ability to change its shape and unlock new pathways makes it worthwhile.
Undernauts: Labyrinth of Yomi excels at providing you with a DRPG that feels fresh without feeling completely new. The high risk, high reward gameplay is incredibly challenging at first and becomes rewarding once you find your stride. I often found myself wishing the game opened up a lot faster and was smoother to play, but those issues feel small in the grand scheme of it all.
Undernauts: Labyrinth of Yomi is currently available on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and PC. It’ll come to the PlayStation 5 in 2022.