For as rotten as a year 2020 has been IRL, it has been as outstanding in video game releases; this is especially true for the rogue-like genre. From personal favorites like Neon Abyss to 1.0 releases of games like Risk of Rain 2 and everything in between, you could make a top 5 rogue-likes list of 2020 and have just as much difficulty as with your top 10 list of the year. Going Under is going to get less of a wide spread recognition as a result and that is a damn shame, because it may not be a loud and flashy success that demands attention, but it is a success that deserves to find its audience. In this endless sea of rogue-like releases, next gen consoles, and AAA releases, success will be harder to find for smaller indie games, but there are 3 selling points for the game that differentiate it and I will use to look at the game’s strengths and weaknesses, while hopefully showcasing what makes it worthwhile as well.
First up is the concept; like Hades from this year as well, Going Under wants to contextualize every system and mechanic through its worldbuilding and writing. Like Hades it is successful in doing so, but its attempts are far less ambitious and feel less significant as a result. In Going Under you play as an intern named Jackie who was recently hired for an internship in Fizzle and, as with most internships, you spend little time doing what you were meant to be doing, and more time fighting monsters in the basement made up from companies who went under during their time with parent company Cubicle (which is also the current parent company of Fizzle as well). This concept leads to some fun, satirical, and whimsical context for the rogue-like tropes present in the game; you get paid with experience instead of money because you are an intern, when you lose you go again because you are the intern and no one really cares about you, you have mentors instead of character builds, you do quests that are more personal tasks that other people don’t want to do, etc. This applies during runs as well, with dungeons themed after Silicon Valley start up ideas like dating sites or cryptocurrency mining, with the weapons, items, and currency found in them adapting to the theme as well. Even the narrative is equally adamant about contextualizing everything in a satirical way to reflect the tech company ethos that most Silicon Valley start ups seem to have; Jackie will witness many idiotic decisions brushed away by “bro” bosses, coworkers who need these jobs to survive doing everything to keep the company afloat while getting none of the rewards. There are some very clear targets and themes that the game goes after, but it also does not take it self too seriously; in fact, I wish it did because the way it breaks the 4th wall often makes it seem like it is unsure of its ability to deliver jokes and narrative, which makes them a bit bloated. All in all, although the concept of contextualizing everything in a rogue-like may sound ambitious, Going Under is mildly so but very successful nonetheless; in a year that also includes Hades though, it is going to be very hard to feel in awe for that.
Beyond that the next selling point is the one that makes or breaks every game, but is especially true for rogue-likes: Gameplay/mechanics. Going Under actually had one of the more interesting pitches for this side of the game of the year for me (with Noita being the other interesting one). In Going Under everything can be used as a weapon—or, almost everything at least. There are laptops, mugs, pitchforks, pickaxes, pillows, calculators, alongside traditional weaponry like swords and axes. This was a very interesting idea, and the shear thought of what benefits and properties would be given to laptops over brooms, and how they would balance the traditional weapons with the “DIY” arsenal was what sold me on the game being a day one purchase; turns out, its not as ambitious as I thought it would be (I want to point out that I imagined it would be ambitious, the game did not give that impression). There’s a pretty straightforward durability mechanic, so every weapon will break eventually and none are that significant as a result, while the “DIY” arsenal are given pretty traditional strength and speed properties with some variability for each dungeon and “type”; for example, the laptop is not powerful or durable, but it is fast and when it breaks it shocks the enemy which stuns them. Despite the initial disappointment at how ‘limited’ the scope of the game was, the combat actually won me over; its fast, fluid, and satisfying (especially in the visuals department), while the variations in the dungeons have enough distinguishing properties that I found myself preferring one variation over the other. Moreover, enemy variation was a real surprise for me; each dungeon will serve up its own enemies that behave in tune with the theme of the dungeon and are very different from each other, not only in visuals but also in gameplay, with some being melee focused or vanishing for a few seconds, etc. Having said that, the combat is good but not excellent; I wished for more depth or a better targeting system than the one currently in place (especially for mouse and keyboard), while there were many times that things became chaotic and unreadable, but not in a fun way (like with Neon Abyss).
Lastly, presentation was a major selling point due to how unique the game looks. The game has this play-doh looking world and characters that make it look whimsical and very colorful; there are also some great uses of ragdoll and object physics, that add more character and charm in this already charming world. The music is also playful and fits in well with the tone of the game; what stands out to me though, has to be the mixing of audio and visuals in a great package. Even in “scenes” with close ups of characters where dialogue is exchanged, the fonts will be character specific and will convey tone through size and speed, but also through their sound, and while all these is happening the background gameplay is still going, sometimes to comedic effects that only enhance the goody, satirical mood of the game. Beyond that, the characters, enemies, and world are designed and presented to absolute perfection; I got the game for the gameplay and contextualization of it, but I actually really enjoyed and stuck with it, because of how charmingly and confidently it was presented through this unique art style.
Overall, then, Going Under does deliver on all 3 of its selling points and in one of them does a brilliant job as well; it’s a shame then that 2020 has been such an extraordinary year for games and especially for rogue-likes. It’s a great game (first of the studio as well) that’s going up against excellent ones; I hope it finds its audience and does well for the devs, because it is clearly made by talented and hard-working people, and also because on any other year it would have been a sleeper hit.