UnderHero is a turn-based fantasy RPG developed by Paper Castle Games and published by Digerati and sees you playing as a lowly minion who, after the Chosen Hero has been defeated, is now tasked with saving the world from the evil Mr. Stitches, who is this world’s big bad and your boss! Battle your way through the game’s four worlds as you fight, flee, and bribe a range of quirky monsters.
Will you save the Chestnut Kingdom from certain doom? Or will Mr. Stiches have the last laugh? Find out in UnderHero!
Honestly, I am rather surprised that this game isn’t more well known, especially given the quality therein. Maybe it was poorly timed? Did it not generate enough hype? Whatever the cause was, here is why I think this overlooked gem deserves a second look.
STORY – THE UNLIKELIEST OF HEROES
UnderHero’s story is a quirky take on traditional fantasy adventure games. You take on the role of Masked Kid, one of the evil Mr. Stiches lowly minions. It is the equivalent in this world of being a Goomba, a Rotobug, working in retail, or a Blue Slime. You and your buddies are tasked with stopping the Chosen Hero from defeating your boss. However, something goes wrong, and you accidentally end up defeating the hero yourself! On his body, you find Elizabeth IV, a sassy sword which is determined to defeat Mr. Stiches and end his reign of terror once and for all.
However, upon hearing of your defeat of the Chosen Hero, Mr. Stiches tasks you with returning the Triviality Stones back to the bosses the fallen hero had taken them from so that they can prepare for the next Hero to come along. And so you and Elizabeth must travel the game’s worlds, finding and defeating each world’s bosses so that you can gain the strength to defeat Mr. Stiches and save the world.
At face value it is a fairly typical affair; the ‘Unlikeliest of Heroes’ trope on full display with a few witty quips thrown in for good measure. And whilst the title doesn’t venture too far from that cynical assessment, its story is skilfully told and offers a core mystery that slowly unravels itself before you as you play.
I do wish that it did more to subvert the narrative and structure of the quest you are supposed to be embarking on; you are just doing what the Chosen Hero did just slightly differently. And whilst the game does at times subvert its base story it never feels as though it quite lives up to the promise that its opening act and first word provide. Don’t get me wrong. It is intelligently written and clever too, it just feels as though more could be done with the premise than the title is doing with it.
LIVE, LAUGH, FIGHT!
As you can tell by the game’s setup, UnderHero is a fairly satirical take on the traditional fantasy RPG. You are a villain tasked with saving the world. And not even a big villain, you are a lowly underling. And as such, it’s fairly comedic in nature, and there are many scenes during your adventure that left me genuinely laughing out loud from the antics and jokes its diverse and quirky cast of monsters and characters provide.
It is not all thigh-slapping humour, however. There are some moments of genuine pathos and drama; even a few creepy moments are thrown in. But it is all balanced in a way that never feels as though one element undercuts another. In some of the creepier moments, there are no out-of-place gags, and when the game does have more quiet and sombre moments, they are never done in such a way that I feel it overpowers the overall tone of the experience itself.
ELEPHANT NUMBER 3 PLEASE
Inevitable comparisons are going to be drawn to Undertale. Not least of all due to their similar titles. Both are games where you lead a silent protagonist through a world filled with colourful and quirky monsters; each game has you fighting using reaction-based turn-based combat, both games toy with concepts and tropes within gaming and fantasy narratives.
To look at UnderHero as being some form of Undertale clone does it a major disservice. While both games do have similarities, this game does share a couple of superficially similar plot points to Undertale. Where both titles end up going are so different from each other that the comparisons feel unfair. Both games are drastically different from one another in terms of execution, intent and endpoint. Naturally, I cannot go into specifics due to spoilers. But suffice it to say, this isn’t just Undertale again with a different sprite set.
ALL THE FEELS
If I am to be blunt, dear reader, this game has probably been the most emotional experience playing a video game I have had since playing Undertale. Now please understand that I am not trying to say, “If you like Undertale, then you will love UnderHero.” Far from it. But if you are looking for something similar yet distinct enough that it is its own thing, then this is as close as it gets.
When the story hits those emotional high points, it really hits them. Which is a testament to how well each character and scene is written and the music composed. There were some moments when I got genuinely choked up on, and I am not ashamed to admit that. Granted, with those kinds of things, your mileage will vary. But for me, after finishing the story, I needed a while to calm myself down.
UNDER THE MASK
Some characters do feel underwritten. Though I feel that is in part due to how little we see of some of our extended cast for great sections of the adventure. Even some of the more generic NPCs can be absent for such a long time; it is kind of astounding that they are; the game is so well written that I am surprised that the developers didn’t take every opportunity to show it off. But maybe the writers for this don’t have as big an ego as some other indie writers, so they felt they’d let the overall experience and gameplay speak for itself.
Yes, I am being a wee bit facetious there. But still, I feel that certain characters don’t feel quite as developed and characterful as their designs are. Again, that feels down to them just not being as present in the game or the story as much as I feel that they should be. Still, what little that we do see of our cast they are very well written. Even characters who we don’t see too often or are newly introduced to we can get a gauge for their personality fairly quickly.
GAMEPLAY – UNDERHERO OVER HERO WOMBLING FREE!
UnderHero is a turn-based RPG adventure game very much in the vein of the first two Paper Mario games; the battles are more active experiences and require the player to time their attacks and dodges for maximum effectiveness. As such, almost every fight in the game becomes a series of small puzzles with you needing to discover each monster’s tells to know when an attack is coming and how to best avoid or deflect it.
Granted, almost every fight on your journey can be avoided. Either by literally avoiding a fight (There are no random encounters in this game) or by bribing your enemy to let you go. There are some battles that you cannot avoid, however, so any hopes of doing a pacifist run are sadly out of the question for the most part.
Whilst it is possible to spare almost all the monsters that you will face, it is difficult to do this without spending your coins to bribe them; you cannot even just flee from the fight once it beings; you either have to kill your foe or bribe them.
I NEED A HERO!
When you bump into a monster, almost all of them won’t hurt you before you make the first strike. As such, it can make some encounters feel rather uncomfortable as, if you lack the coin to do so, you are forced to kill the adorable monster you just walked into whilst they beg for mercy; a mercy the game will not allow you to grant.
This aspect, whilst it does not ruin my enjoyment of the title as a whole, I frequently find myself just confused as to why I am even forced to fight a monster who doesn’t even want to fight me.
As a result, made me actively avoid fighting where possible, and actively avoided using the game’s combat mechanics. The vast majority of encounters I found myself in were ended by me throwing money at my foe and hoping I still had enough for the rest of the level. By extension, this resulted in an overall more passive experience than I was hoping for or expecting.
In addition to the turn-based combat, there are large sections of the game that are dedicated to platforming. Whilst the game’s platforming is not the greatest there has ever been, it is still solid and functional. I do feel that there are frankly too many sections which are based around platforming, particularly in the latter stages of the adventure where it feels like it is almost the only thing that you do, but the mechanics in and of themselves never feel burdensome and never command too much from the player. Even if they are rather basic and ever evolve or grant the player new powers to make it easier or more engaging.
Almost the entirety of the final act of the story is platforming. And the final boss fight feels incredibly short and far easier than many of the fights that came before it. Maybe the developers felt that the game was getting a little too long. Either way, whilst it wasn’t a walk in the park, it did feel a tad anti-climactic.
If there is one major issue that UnderHero has, it is with its pacing, both in terms of its narrative and level structure. Some worlds feel far shorter than others, other worlds start to border on being too long, and some sequences go on for far too long with little to break the flow. There is too much platforming in the latter stages, and it feels that with a few tweaks, they could have squeezed an extra world into it.
Whilst the pacing issues are not critical issues, there were times I was astounded by how short some sections were and other times just willing for the current section to wrap up as soon as possible. Not so much out of pure frustration, but more out of the desire for variety and to see more of the game’s cool world and fun characters.
As a whole, the gameplay is incredibly solid and is everything that one could hope for with a game of this scale. Whilst I feel that more could have been done in some areas, the final product is still engaging enough to see you through and only ever feels cumbersome due to the length of certain sections rather than the mechanics themselves.
SOUND & GRAPHICS – THE CREEPY AND THE KOOKY
It’s undeniable that the art style for this indie game is charming. Its worlds are colourful and well designed each with its own personality and character to them. Each is distinct and memorable. The monsters have great designs, they are rich in character, and frequently rather adorable. I do wish that there was more variety in their designs, but what we do get is still fine.
Granted, there are several monsters that you’ll meet and fight, which are just pallet swaps of ones seen earlier; though, given the tone of the game, that is likely an intentional joke by the developers. In any case, I still would have much preferred more variety in the monsters that we come across.
The soundtrack is wonderful. Skillfully composed, rich in character, and full of energy. Much like most of the world and characters of the title itself. And to be honest with you, dear reader, I have found myself humming many of the songs and themes as I go about my day.
DO THE UNDERHERO!
However, whilst the soundtrack itself is fantastic, its integration into the game’s combat is less so. As previously stated, UnderHero requires the player to act in time and have good reflexes to deal with incoming threats. Additionally, you can deal extra damage by striking your foe in time to the beat of the music. Both in the main battle mode and in ‘Rush Mode’. The problem is that the beat outside of Rush Mode is intentionally low in the audio mix, and when it is audible in Rush Mode, it is rather rhythmic.
This can make it hard to properly time your attacks as the game would rather that you do. Truth be told it doesn’t need to be equal to or beat Crypt of the NecroDancer in terms of rhythm-based combat mechanics. But what I would at least expect is that the music has a beat I can beat monsters to. It isn’t something that is impossible to learn, but it isn’t quite as accessible as I feel it should be.
The presentation of this RPG, even with these things said, is still fantastic. A great deal of care and craft has gone into the creation of this game. That is plainly evident from every aspect of the game. And whilst it does feel slightly flawed in some areas it is still a fantastic experience all around.
UnderHero was reviewed on Switch with a game key provided by First Press Games.