UnderMine is the debut game from Thorium Entertainment, a two-man studio with a clear knack for developing satisfying progression loops. As a roguelite dungeon crawler, you can expect to die (a lot!) in the hopes that you will make it just a little further next time. But even as you realize your death is only a room or two away, you’ll already be looking forward to spending some hard-earned gold back at your base to unlock your choice of permanent upgrades that compliment your playstyle.
This adventure leans heavily into the most satisfying aspects of the genre, so even though it only provides two primary attack options (melee and ranged) that don’t change, the sheer variety of relics, blessings, and other modifiers keep each run feeling simultaneously fresh and familiar.
Equal parts Zelda, Rogue Legacy and Curse of the Dead Gods, UnderMine delivers a top-down dungeon crawler that, while not without its share of faults, provides a satisfying experience overall. The combat is punchy and challenging, and the amount of gold you receive increases just steadily enough that you’ll seldom feel like a run wasn’t worth your time. If you’re a fan of the slow-but-steady progression emblematic of roguelite games, you’ll find a lot to like here.
Story – Not what you’re here for
The story, while technically present, unsurprisingly takes the backseat in this game. You begin as a generic, randomly named peasant who has been summoned by Archmage Arkanos to locate the cause of earthquakes that have been increasing lately in the mine. Oh, and since you’re already headed in that direction, you wouldn’t mind finding a lost blacksmith and sending him home, would you?
After you’ve saved the blacksmith, you’ll iterate through recovering a handful of other characters that, once relocated to the surface, act as merchants that sell the permanent upgrades necessary to power up your successors for future runs. These characters are fun, if a bit bizarre in some cases, but the upgrades they offer are indispensable and feel great to purchase.
While it isn’t necessarily a key part of the narrative, a common theme in UnderMine focuses on the lack of individuality of your current character. Each time you die, you start your next run as a randomly named but nearly identical peasant who has received a portion of the gold you held last time you died. Then you pick up where your predecessor left off. In fact, your series of doomed miners are so indistinguishable from one another that many NPCs don’t realize that they’re talking with different people. Even when they do recognize that you’re playing a different character, they comment that it doesn’t matter because that previous sucker is most definitely dead.
It’s a bleak but funny reminder that, no matter how unique we think we are, we’re all just interchangeable cogs in a societal machine. Having made this point, Thorium seems to have no qualms about forcing the player to send peasant after doomed peasant to their untimely demise. It makes for a delightful bit of nihilistic comedy.
The actual story, while light, isn’t completely absent though. Slowly, the mystery of the world does unfold as you dig deeper, eventually suggesting that something more sinister and otherworldly is at play both within and above the mine. The story won’t be nominated for any awards, but it does add a nice touch of flavor to a game that might have otherwise felt bland as it progressed.
Gameplay – A satisfying loop with an inconsistent difficulty curve
First, if you’re unfamiliar with what “roguelite” means as a genre, one foundational element is that you usually start over from the beginning when you die. However, in contrast to traditional “roguelike” games (note the “lite” vs. “like”), this more forgiving genre allows you to purchase permanent upgrades to make your next run easier.
This forms a core game loop that is both familiar and satisfying to fans of the genre: Get as far as you can before you die, use your accrued currency back at base to purchase some upgrades, and try again to get as far as you can before you die. Rinse and repeat. The difference between a good roguelite and a bad one hinges on whether the gameplay offers more satisfaction than tedium. For the most part, UnderMine gets this balance just right.
In addition to gold, there is an even better currency that you can use to unlock more pickups: Thorium. Yes, the premium currency in this game is named after the developer. (Is that confusing, you ask? Nah, not really—unless you’re me, right now, writing this review.) You can spend your thorium to unlock more relics, blessings, and other game-modifying drops. Once unlocked, those items can then show up in any of your future runs. Personally, I never found myself short on thorium when I needed it, and yet I found myself excited whenever I found a cache of those sweet, purple gems because there was always something remaining that I was excited to purchase.
From the moment Archmage Arkanos bids you to explore the mine and return with a missing blacksmith, you’re introduced to a set of core mechanics that mostly do not change. You can swing your trusty pickaxe at a very limited melee range, or you can throw your pickaxe like a boomerang for less damage but a much longer range. You’ll pick up keys that can be used to unlock doors and chests, and you’ll find bombs to blast your way through rock barriers, hidden walls, and unlucky enemies.
As you progress lower and lower, you’ll encounter and recover a host of NPCs that unlock additional game mechanics like potions, relics, and blessings. Each of these can drastically change your run, and Thorium was wise to make your new best friends fairly easy to unlock within a few hours because they are a critical part of the experience.
As soon as you unlock the blacksmith, you can start upgrading your swing damage, throw damage, health points, gold retention, and throw distance. This is where you can begin fine-tuning your upgrades to your playstyle. Does up-close combat freak you out? Invest your hard-earned gold into throwing upgrades! Maybe you prefer the adrenaline rush of barreling headlong into a swarm of enemies? Definitely grab those swing and HP upgrades, or you’ll be monster food before you know it.
The variety of upgrades available feels like it puts you in control of your character’s development—but, to be honest, the cost requirements jump significantly enough with each upgrade that your choices will sometimes be very slim. This begins to feel frustrating as you near the end of the game, when the difficulty curve leaps significantly at least twice, leaving you no option but to either grind some gold or become incredibly skilled.
You’ll go through this loop dozens of times as you work your way down through UnderMine‘s five main areas. Each of these five areas has four floors and concludes with a difficult boss battle. (After you best all five of those, there’s the final Big Bad to take down, which I won’t spoil for you here.) For the most part, the different areas in the game are visually and functionally unique.
They have their own distinct sets of traps and enemies, encouraging you to switch up your playstyle slightly to adapt to your environment. Some enemies will feel brand-new, and others will feel like beefier and smarter versions of enemies, you know—no palette swaps to be found here. It feels like Thorium made a great choice here because the core skill set you’ve learned throughout the game always feels relevant.
The real problem with moving to a new area is that the difficulty tends to spike suddenly and unforgivingly. By the time I moved into the third area, I was routinely overwhelmed by enemies that could catch me by surprise and destroy most of my health bar, even though the previous area was a cakewalk. So I spent a dozen runs focused solely on collecting gold to make myself powerful enough to breeze through, only to find that advancing to the next area was an even bigger jump in difficulty, and my only choice was to repeat the grinding process. As for advancing to the fifth area… well, I’m still living through the nightmares. Some people will find these difficulty spikes to be refreshing, but they mostly felt time-consuming to me.
Once you’ve made it through the campaign, you unlock the ability to play through the Othermine, a much more roguelike mode. (Remember the distinction I pointed out above?) In this mode, you are provided with some random upgrades and presented with a few forced choices of a relic, a blessing, and a curse. You don’t bring anything back with you, so you can focus solely on winning instead of earning currency. Alternately, you can choose the standard mode, but with harder bosses, and you can continue making the primary game mode more and more difficult as you go.
I should mention that there is one particular aspect of UnderMine that I found both confusing and frustrating: There is no traditional dodge action. Instead, your sack of doomed peasant flesh only has the ability to jump over danger. In theory, I understand that this action is essentially identical to something like a dodge roll. But in practice, I found that jumping instead of dodging just felt really unintuitive and clunky to me. I think this is because I don’t associate jumping with the intended evasive action in games; If I’m jumping to avoid danger in a game like this, it’s because I’m mashing buttons out of sheer panic just so that I can stay alive for a few more seconds.
Overall though, this is an adventure that feels really good to play. The combat usually feels fair and satisfying, and despite a few shortcomings, the core gameplay loop just feels really, really good. If you are at all inclined toward roguelites, you’re sure to find a lot of enjoyment here.
Audio and graphics – Looks great, sounds okay
At first look, I thought the cartoonish-yet-detailed pixel art style would be a bit too unsettling, but I quickly adapted and found it to be incredibly charming instead. The characters and environments are unique and well-designed. The preponderance of mustaches is a bit odd but weirdly humorous. The style is surprisingly clean for a pixel art game, with a refreshing amount of variety. In most cases, the excellent use of color makes it easy to identify sources of danger, which is incredibly important in a game like this. Overall, it is clear that Thorium has a great eye for design, and they didn’t skimp on making this romp through an underground labyrinth look really good.
The music, however, is mostly a letdown, with a few exceptions. The hub music is amazing, and even though it’s where you’ll spend the least amount of your time, prepare to have that jaunty, bordering-on-SNES-era music playing in your head while you sleep. But the rest of the music through the game falls flat. I found myself entirely unable to recall it after five minutes, no matter how hard I tried. It’s not that the music is bad, per se. It’s just largely unmemorable.
Comparison – PS4 vs. PS5
I split my time playing UnderMine between PS4 and PS5. For those of you lucky enough to have gotten your hands on the next-gen console, you’re not going to see any major differences aside from some significant improvements to load time. The time to load a level on PS4 was just long enough that I found myself growing slightly impatient because it felt slightly too long for a fairly simple game with smallish maps.
On the PS5, it felt just right. We’re talking about the difference between 8 seconds and 4 seconds, which doesn’t seem like much, but it becomes noticeable when you’re trying to collect gold as quickly as possible. Other than that, gameplay on the PS5 was slightly smoother in crowded rooms but otherwise, nothing worth mentioning.
UnderMine was reviewed on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 using a key provided by Stride PR.