I’m sure I’m much like everyone else reading this, when I say that I absolutely adore Hades. I devoured it in a way that has been very rare for me lately. With limited time to myself, I usually take advantage of my gaming time to also listen to a podcast or have a YouTube video playing, but not with Hades. Partly because of the voice acting. In a world where Greek gods get reinterpreted every other day, these characters will go down as my definitive versions of the mythical beings. I could sing this game’s praises for a good long while. Many people have. In a year filled with some real AAA heavy hitters, this indie game is a serious contender, if not the winner, on most game of the year lists. I don’t want to waste my time just adding more noise to that discussion though. I want to bring your focus to a different roguelike that came out this year. I acknowledge that Hades is probably the best that came out this year, if not the best game to come out within the last five years, but I think personally Going Under might be my game of the year.
Going Under is a roguelike dungeon crawler that came out this September. What sort of amazes me is how little people seem to be talking about it. It seems like in some parts of the internet a game being a roguelike is enough to get it a rabid following. For whatever reason that just didn’t happen here. Even the wiki is pretty sparse, with little more info than a list of unlockables and perks. I’ve seen worse games than this dissected for minute details and data. And that’s not a diss on those games. This game is just really good.
Going Under puts you in the role of an unpaid marketing intern at a trendy soft drink start up that was just purchased by a major conglomerate company. I think you kind of get an idea of the whole vibe this game is going for already. As an intern your job has little to do with what it actually is supposed to be, and you become the one responsible for clearing out the monsters in the failed businesses that take up the lower levels of your office building. Between each run you go back to your home base where small scenes will advance the overarching plot and you can check in with npcs to update their personal quests. A familiar loop if you’ve played games like Hades or the also excellent Enter the Gungeon.
By the way, I really hope that this becomes the new normal for roguelikes. I really love having the narrative cohesion of a playable hub area instead of just being booted back to the main menu to start another run. The old way just feels so impersonal. If you’re gonna kill me over and over at least give me some time to breath and mess around.
When it comes to really diving into this game, it feels appropriate to start with the games style. The game is a delight just to perceive. The world is simple but colorful in a way that both makes the world more realistic despite its lack of detail and also creates a surreal cartoony atmosphere all its own. It’s what it would look like if Cartoon Network turned a Wework office space into a show. Characters each get two designs. The actual character model which evokes the feeling of early PC 3D models. The kind of stuff you’d find in old edutainment games or games in that style. I do mean that as a compliment. It’s a very cool style. Each character also gets a character portrait used for dialogue. They’re great little snapshots that really flesh out what the models leave to the imagination. With the cast of multicolored, muppet-esque character designs, these portraits feel like something you might find in an old Pixar art book. The music isn’t the most noteworthy part of the package, but it’s still pretty good. I’d put it in my rotation if it was on Spotify. Overall the game just gives off a very strong “indie game” kind of feel. You know the one I’m talking about. That sort of inherent charm that comes from something you know was made by a small close group of people. For another great game with this magic quality, I would direct you over to Donut County
Presentation means nothing without gameplay though. A game can’t just look good, it needs to, ya know, be fun. Going Under takes all the best bits of recent roguelikes, but also has some mechanics all its own to really make it stand out. The most noticeable of these mechanics being that all the weapons you use are destructible. That’s ok though because you get tossed into rooms absolutely cluttered with random items and every single one of them is a weapon. It all feels very Dead Rising. You can choose whether you want to hold out for actual weapons like swords and guns, or just constantly rush around breaking laptops and staplers over people's heads. It has a dodge roll, because of course it does. Everything has a dodge roll now. I’m pretty sure they announced that in the next update Animal Crossing is getting a dodge roll. There’s also the obligatory roguelike passives and active items in the form of skills and apps. They do about what you’d expect them to do. A passive that knocks enemies back when you hit them. An app that lets you freeze enemies. They do a good job of making you feel just a little bit stronger when you get one, and making you feel super strong when you’ve built up a whole run worth of them. Exactly how it should work. If you know what to expect in a roguelike, you already have a pretty good idea of how this game plays, and whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing mostly comes down to your taste. (I like it a lot.)
None of these things are what really makes this game stand out for me though. As great of a game as it is, what makes this my potential game of the year is it’s message. Let me take a brief detour here and take you back. Remember when a ton of games used to be about how evil religion is? There were so many JRPGs that ended with you fighting a god that it became a weirdly specific cliche all on it’s own. Even now it still pops up as a theme every once in a while. And I can’t help but think that we’ve kind of moved past the need for that. Art like that is meant to draw attention to issues in the world, and I don’t really think we need to do that anymore for the church. What I think is a better use of our focus in our current world climate is large corporations. I’ve always wondered why we don’t see more games about that. To its credit, Final Fantasy 7 does do a good job of that, and it’s only getting more attention with the remake, so that’s one very strong contender. But I want more. Part of me thinks maybe it’s because there’s very real fear of large corporations in the video game industry. Studios are owned by corporations and could face very real consequences for speaking out. The church can’t cut people’s pay, but Bethesda sure can. That’s exactly why it makes so much sense that a small indie team is the first to tackle the topic this well.
I hope this is the beginning of a trend. I’d love to see more games that really take an opportunity to tackle real relevant issues instead of just recycling what we know from past games. I know there’s a lot of games that do this really well. Games like Gris are masterwork pieces in what they explore. However I want us to also be able to explore these ideas in what I can admittedly only really describe as “gamey games”. Maybe that doesn’t happen though. All the more reason to play Going Under. It’s doing something I haven’t seen a game do in a very long time. Certainly not anytime this year.