If there’s one thing I learned in my first months of reviewing games, it’s that I appreciate ambitious developers, regardless of their budget or experience. Aggro Crab could have just made a frantic, rewarding action rogue-lite without much of a story. They could have also just made a dialogue-heavy, mechanically simplistic adventure game satirizing office culture and the nature of Capitalism. Instead, they went all out and delivered an experience that ticks all the right boxes.
STORY – INTERNSHIPS ARE HECK
Playing out the current real-world political and economic climate to its logical conclusion, Going Under takes you to the capitalist dystopia of Neo Cascadia, a city literally built atop the failed companies that came before it. Our heroine, Jacqueline, just graduated from college and managed to secure a marketing internship at the soda manufacturer Fizzle – unpaid, of course, because who pays for labor anymore?
There, she meets her new co-workers, each with their own off-putting habits and mannerisms. Accountant Tappi is constantly on edge, programmer Kara is jaded and abrasive, Flavor Officer Fern is creepily obsessed with creating bizarre new flavors, barista Swomp is a tactless buffoon, project manager Marv orders the team around without considering any concerns they raise, and CEO Ray is a born-rich dude bro who has literally no idea what he’s doing. Everyone exudes personality in both design and writing, and your colleagues aren’t nearly as one-dimensional as they may appear at first.
Before she even has the chance to do her job, Marv immediately tasks her with exploring dungeons and killing monsters. You see, when a company in Neo Cascadia goes under, it literally goes under. As in, sinks below the surface, turning all who work there into thematically appropriate monsters. Desperate to keep her position, Jackie agrees to retrieve three artifacts from the failed tech-startups situated below Fizzle: Joblin, StyxCoin and Winkydink.
It’s a simple setup for an absurdist premise, taking high fantasy tropes and translating them into a humorous depiction of the modern start-up culture. I have experienced the rise and fall of an internet start-up second hand through a family member; the developers are very clearly familiar with the course these companies usually take as the characters and plot elements hit very close to home. Especially the unreliable CEO calling people “rock star” and promising boatloads of money.
Speaking of characters: the more of their missions you complete, the more your co-workers share with you, and the more relatable they become. It turns out Fern isn’t crazy; he’s just a flavor artist who loves his work. Kara hates working on modern devices because of all the ways they invade her privacy; she remembers the good old days of computers only doing what you tell them to. Ray, well, Ray is still an idiot, but his parents were entrepreneurs, so he has to be one, too, right?
And don’t worry, I didn’t just spoil any big reveals; this is the kind of stuff you learn pretty early on. The game doesn’t hit you over the head with these traits either; Ray didn’t just say, “My parents ran businesses, so I feel I need to also”. Instead, you can infer this from the first lesson he teaches you: “Never turn down a loan from your parents”.
The writing is consistently strong, with every character having their own voice. Despite the depressing lives most of your co-workers lead, Going Under never takes itself too seriously, delivering their relatable, human stories with a bittersweet smile. Despite not throwing any major plot twists at you, the story remains engaging throughout and culminates in one the most beautifully climactic sequences I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing in recent memory.
THE GAMEPLAY – EVERYTHING, INCLUDING THE KITCHEN SINK
Outside of walking around and talking to people in the Fizzle office, you’ll be doing combat and nothing but combat. Dungeons are procedurally generated and are usually a linear sequence of rooms, with only occasional branching paths. You won’t be finding any puzzles or set pieces. You simply enter a room, kill everything in it, and then move on. It’s a simple, yet timeless gameplay loop that should keep you thoroughly entertained for the 10 to 20 hours you are likely to spend with Going Under.
Combat is most comparable to Breath of the Wild: You can lock onto enemies, use fast and charged attacks, and dodge using an invincible roll. If a sword, spear or mug has outlived its usefulness, you can throw it for additional damage. Since the equipment has low durability and/or ammo, you’ll constantly be breaking and replacing gear, often in the middle of battle. A big part of Going Under’s appeal lies with the ability to pick up a huge variety of items and use them to fend of monsters; and it’s not only possible, but it’s also highly encouraged! While a laptop is less powerful than a hammer, breaking the computer will inflict electric damage to surrounding enemies.
It’s generally a good idea to experiment with everything you can get your hands on, as many of the objects can have surprisingly useful qualities. A tennis racket might not be terribly strong but hit a weapon on the floor with it and you’ll send it flying across the room and, ideally, into somebody’s face. You can carry three items with you at once, which I feel is the perfect balance between constantly cycling through gear and saving some for a, particularly tough fight.
Each dungeon comes with its own unique set of enemies. These range from basic spear-wielding Joblins – aka “Freelancers” -, to BlockChain Chomps, to Succubabes (I think that’s what they’re called but do not google that[or do, I’m not your mom]). These greatly vary in their behavior and difficulty, but the challenge will usually come from the ensuing chaos. Often you’ll be swarmed by groups of four or five as soon as you enter the room. While you’re still learning the ropes, this will occasionally seem unfair, but enemies are predictable, and you should be able to dodge attacks as you plan your approach or scramble for weapons.
It demands a skill that I like to call Chaos Management, which I originally coined playing Broforce. Going Under asks you to make a choice during a battle: Do you try to keep the enemies under control, picking them off one at a time by tactically throwing folding chairs at them? Or do you embrace the chaos by setting the entire room on fire, rolling around, luring burning monsters to their friends to spread the flames? At any given time, you’ll need to evaluate just how dangerous you want to make the environment for yourself and your opponents. It’s a rewarding balance to strike, and different rooms require different approaches.
If you get knocked out, you wake up back at the Fizzle office. Unlike many other rogue-lites, you’ll only ever lose 10 to 15 minutes of progress, as dungeons are relatively short. You keep the progress on all missions and skills, so failure is rarely frustrating.
How much fun you’ll get out of a rogue-lite is inextricably linked to how overpowered you can become, so power-ups are everything. Luckily, Going Under offers about 80 unlockable skills to turn the protagonist into a Jackie super beast. The abilities you’ll find in dungeons early on are fairly basic and easily understood: Go-Getter, for example, increases your movement and attack speed. Over the course of the game, you’ll be able to purchase more specialized passives to add to the pool: Thought Leader randomly charms enemies, causing them to fight for you for a few seconds. This culminates in highly specific skills that can be incredibly powerful, but may require some setup to get any benefit from Action-Oriented makes all explosions more powerful, and they no longer hurt you – so long as you don’t look at them (plus, Jackie gets some sweet shades).
Every equipped skill gains a few “Endorsement” points after every battle. Reach 100%, and a skill becomes endorsed permanently; before entering a dungeon, you can choose one of your endorsed skills to start your run with. This is an excellent bit of progression. Jackie doesn’t become infinitely powerful, but she’ll have an expanding library of abilities to choose from for different dungeons and missions. My personal favorite is Upper Body Strength, allowing you to maintain your normal movement speed while wielding large weapons, like chairs and refrigerators.
Most of Jackie’s co-workers will offer to become mentors after you’ve completed a mission for them. Alongside an endorsed skill, you’ll also choose a mentor for your run, with each colleague offering perks that match their personality, job, and relationship with Jackie. After completing a set of missions for a mentor, they level up, and whenever they do, they teach Jackie something new about life, work, or both. As you complete Tappi’s quests, she gives financial advice, both on how to save money and how to spend it. This translates to Jackie finding more money and the appearance of cheaper online shops in the dungeons. Much of Ray’s advice involves being confidently irresponsible. The first perk you gain is the company credit card. It allows you to buy items from shops you can’t afford, but you gain an increasingly large ball-and-chain (labelled “DEBT”) attached to yourself until you pay your bills.
Every mentor offers powerful upgrades, and each of these perks tells you a little more about how they do business and how they live their lives. This Social Link-like mechanic is amazingly effective at making your quirky colleagues increasingly endearing, making you feel far more connected to them than you would otherwise.
THE BUGS – THEY’RE IN MY EYES
I mentioned earlier that Going Under is very buggy. Enemies will constantly get stuck in objects, clipping through tables every chance they get. Weapons will lodge themselves in walls, doing their best to phase through and plummet into the abyss. The camera moves freely to a fault and is occasionally completely blocked by the environment. The frame rate on Switch drops into the single digits during the final act. Characters will use the wrong lines of dialogue when handing out missions. Minecarts… don’t even get me started on minecarts.
— BennetDoesGames (@BennetDoesGames) September 28, 2020
The most hilarious, easily reproducible issue I found occurred during a late-game boss fight. There’s a skill that spawns a friendly slime every time you take damage. The boss will place piles of thumbtacks in the arena. Rolling into the middle of the trap will cause Jackie to be hit dozens of times at once, creating just as many slimes. This tanks the fps horribly, but doing this one more time will instantly crash the game (on Switch, anyway).
Going Under is lucky to be a comedy game, as most bugs are more funny than annoying. Getting mad at a bug in Going Under is like getting mad at a bug in Goat Simulator. Intentional or not, it’s part of the charm, and I honestly don’t know how many of these problems even need to be fixed.
ACCESSIBILITY – EVERYONE’S INVITED
Going Under is a fairly challenging game, but Aggro Crab made sure everyone can enjoy it. You can enable and disable a number of accessibility options for your save file. Options include more heart containers, longer invulnerability after getting hit, more invincibility frames when dodging, and higher weapon durability. Instead of being simple toggles, you can adjust how much help you’d like with each of these buffs. This will allow anyone to create the perfect challenge for themselves. I especially like the absence of an option to increase the damage you deal; that way, players can’t accidentally make themselves so powerful they’d miss out on the prolonged tension of boss fights.
GRAPHICS & AUDIO – IT’S ADVENTURE TIME
Going Under is delightfully colorful, with every environment oozing charm. Each dungeon has its own unique elements functioning as weapons, jokes and bits of storytelling. You’ll find huge coffee pots at Joblin, anime body pillows at Winkydink and diamond pickaxes at Styxcoin. Despite them all using the same core mechanics, they very much have their own identities. Character models are purposefully simplistic; Jackie looks more like a wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man than a person; most characters have their faces painted onto the front of their heads. It’s all just gosh-darn adorable.
The music is quite excellent, too. I honestly don’t know what the genre is called, but I was reminded of Adventure Time and the work of Tomorrow Corporation’s Kyle Gabler. And me comparing your music to anything created by Kyle Gabler is the highest praise I can give. The full OST is available on Aggro Crab’s YouTube channel; I recommend listening to the first couple of songs to get an idea if it’s for you.
Going Under was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch. A review copy was provided by Team17.