Ever since UNDERDOGS' announcement trailer, it was undeniable that One Hamsa's latest offering holds unique character and style.
From the stylish visuals to the grimy soundscape, UNDERDOGS oozed a sense of cool. Releasing this week for Quest and PC VR, does the game have what it takes to pulverize the competition, or will it end up as wreckage crushed under the weight of its ambition? Let’s find out…
Escape To New Brakka
UNDERDOGS is a roguelike, arena-combat game set in a not-to-distant dystopian future. The story follows a pair of brothers fleeing an omnipresent AI overlord with only one option left; head for New Brakka, the only city left run by humans. Once there, the only way into the city is through the underground mech fighting pits.
It's immediately obvious how much care has been taken to create a coherent and convincing alternate future for you to inhabit.
The narrative is metered out by way of stylish comic panels, with splashes of fantastic art interspersed between the action. The story is fairly light, but also precisely as deep as it needs to be. The stylish visual design coupled with an outstanding score and solid voice work create a fast connection with the world and immerse the player wholeheartedly into the plucky duo’s fight for survival.
Roll The Dice
UNDERDOGS' basic structure sees you move through a series of smaller arena fights, facing off against an assortment of mechanized nasties before eventually taking on an arena boss. Between battles, you get presented with a range of options to help prepare for the next fight.
These sections offer a random sequence of activities, like buying parts and repairs to fixing elements of the next fight to gain an advantage. A noteworthy amount of options unlock as you progress, many of which have an element of chance that can negatively skew the outcome. It’s a well-thought-out conceit that adds a sense of danger to this world, matching the tone and character perfectly.
Players will fight through two distinct arenas, each with its own environmental dangers and escalating hordes of enemies. After defeating the second arena the game format shifts gears unexpectedly in a way that cleverly mixes up the gameplay while remaining true to the established gameplay loop. From fairly trivial robotic `roaches’ to enormous armored monstrosities, UNDERDOGS provides a decent array of enemy types promising thrilling, visceral carnage.
Each fight begins by calibrating your Rilla (the gorilla-shaped mech that you pilot), grabbing the controllers mounted in the cockpit, and activating the mech’s giant mechanical arms. These mirror your own movements within the cockpit and to say that this is satisfying is an understatement.
Utilizing an arm-based movement system similar to Gorilla Tag, combined with a physics-based approach to melee combat, UNDERDOGS delivers an adrenaline-fueled experience that rivals anything else in VR. At the heart of this is a control system that is so effortlessly intuitive that it becomes subconscious within minutes.
Fights are a frantic gladiatorial type affair with enemies released from all sides of the arena. To survive, players need to know when to fight and when to flee, prioritizing specific enemies in the pack. Mastering the timing needed to smash a junk dog out of mid-air or stop it in its tracks with a precision headshot is not just essential, but the game's most satisfying element.
The physics-based combat requires you to put some heft behind your swings to deal optimum damage. While brute force can help, an innate feel for the game's physics is what will really send the scrap flying. Thanks to consistent, fluent controls, launching skull-crushing haymakers before deftly side-stepping potentially arm-rending attacks will quickly be second nature, evoking a flow-state dance of metal-on-metal violence that is thrillingly engaging.
UNDERDOGS stands out amongst other VR roguelikes as an exemplary example of the genre. Each run is unique but because UNDERDOGS delivers so many distinct and impactful variables, it encourages players to keep pursuing their next run to see what lies around the corner.
Alongside randomized enemies, the interactions between fights also change. There is an almost overwhelming array of perks, weapons, upgrades and add-ons available to unlock, with deep tactical synergies littered throughout. Each arm and the cockpit operate independently in terms of upgrades and weaponry, allowing builds to be switched, customized and improved as you progress.
A lucky run may be rewarded with a new setup of weapons and add-ons that make the action feel almost too easy. The opposite can see you with no cash and no one to repair your Rilla, leaving you facing off against a Boss while peering through shattered cockpit glass, with only a single arm left intact.
Thankfully, there is a Skirmish mode, a timed wave mode that lets you choose any of your past builds to take into battle. It's a fantastic addition as there are some combinations that are so much fun and it wouldn't be fair to only ever get to use them once.
Outstanding visual and audio design massively underpin how immersive UNDERDOGS is. There's a clear sense of identity and character in the art direction that pervades the game world, while the character designs and comic book cutscenes make the game feel gritty and relevant to the world that you inhabit during battles.
The lighting and color are also expertly delivered, providing giant, stylized environments that feel both intimidating and impressive. Framerate is mostly solid too, even in the most intense action. In my eight hours with the game, I encountered only very occasional dips in performance, outside of one incident that led to a hard crash.
Sound design is also a standout feature and every audio component works seamlessly to create a world that feels grounded. The sound effects deliver a sense of weight and catastrophic impact, selling the clash of tons of metal, while making each crushing headshot echo with shuddering satisfaction.
The score is truly fantastic, filling every space with an ambient grime soundscape that matches the game's tone perfectly. Similarly, King's voice actor delivers an impactful performance that makes the silence of the cutscenes feel empty. With such a detailed world of eclectic characters, you could be forgiven for wanting cutscenes at the same standard elsewhere.
UNDERDOGS is an unapologetically intense game with almost no comfort allowances for those who struggle with artificial movement. It's played exclusively using an arm-based swinging locomotion movement system, and even vignetting options have been forgone. The only comfort concession is snap turning, so gamers with motion sickness sensitivity should approach with caution.
It’s difficult to find fault with UNDERDOGS and my biggest criticism is that it’s so good there should be more. That's not to say that the game feels incomplete; there’s real value to be had here at launch. But with just two arenas and only the skirmish mode propping up the main roguelike loop, there is huge scope for the devs to build this title over time. When asked about a potential PvP mode, One Hamsa stated, “If the game does well enough, we'll definitely be looking into it”, so there’s still hope.
UNDERDOGS Review - Final Verdict
UNDERDOGS delivers an outstanding experience from start to finish and we only wish there was more to it. Between the strong presentation, engaging core gameplay and progression systems, One Hamsa has delivered an arena fighter that achieves something that feels fresh and exciting on every level. For players who like to jump straight into the action UNDERDOGS is a must buy.
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