New roguelike UnderMine is a brilliant fusion of Binding of Isaac and Spelunky

Like RPG elements before them, procedural roguelike mechanics are starting to become more than a genre. We see games all over proclaiming roguelike status even though they just have some sort of random element. It’s not ideal, especially if you’re also on the hunt for the next great Gungeon or Isaac. Luckily, Fandom (yes, the wiki people) and the two-man team at Thorium have released something that could reach those heights. Out now on Steam Early Access, UnderMine is a polished top-down roguelike adventure that already gets more right than many other roguelikes do with their first full release.

UnderMine Early Access Preview | The initial descent

UnderMine Hub Area Gameplay

You play as one in a long string of hapless peasants looking to reap the rewards of spelunking. You’ve got a simple pickaxe and a sack for your gold, but you’re not exploring just any maze. This is the titular UnderMine, a deep cavern hoarding powerful relics, tough bosses and an ever-shifting layout. After gaining “inspiration” from a surly sorcerer, you set off to investigate mysterious earthquakes and gain riches all your own. When you inevitably die, the next volunteer reaps the rewards of the previous volunteer and gets just a bit further down the rabbit hole.

Right off the bat, UnderMine is gorgeous. It is reminiscent of last year’s Moonlighter, with a high fidelity pixel-art style that is always satisfying to look at. As you go through the levels, you’ll run into colorful characters with unique personalities that you need to rescue. As you free them from peril, they rise to the initial hub area to become Gungeon-style shopkeepers. Each character is as expressive in gameplay as they are in their dialogue portraits. While it might sound cliché, the world of UnderMine looks like a cartoon come to life.

The refined presentation is key as that’s what UnderMine brings to the table. Gameplay-wise, this is the type of release that borrows heavily from genre heavyweights and combines them into something smooth. There’s no real innovation here, but that somehow still feels like a breath of fresh air. So many new roguelikes unsuccessfully try to break the mold. They have gameplay loops that ignore the best lessons of the past in the name of novel design: the subtle character progression, item stacking, the vast variety of rooms and events. All of that turns up in UnderMine and it’s much better for it.

UnderMine Early Access Preview | Securing a foothold

UnderMine Beastiary Gameplay

So, if UnderMine takes so much from other games, what does it offer on its own? For one, a unique and toned-down aesthetic. The Binding of Isaac has its faithful audience, but it’s not for everyone. The body horror and religious overtones are sure to turn off a certain portion of players, and there’s nothing even close to that here. Characters have mysterious intrigue, and there’s a bit of dread in the cycle of perpetual death the miners go through. Still, this is the Cartoon Network to Isaac‘s Adult Swim. Most children will be able to play UnderMine, even if the kid might think it’s a bit too corny.

Regardless of tone, UnderMine already has all the tools for success in place. It obviously needs more variety, but there seems to be a good roadmap in place to get there. The Early Access notes mention an eight-month development period, with plans to “double everything” currently in the build. There are already 200 items in this arsenal, but you just need that level of depth to make this type of game. That and unique ideas, but UnderMine is on the right track. They already have a “Keyblade” that increases your damage output based on how many keys you have and a bomb that spawns smaller bombs themed after a Matryoshka doll. Just keep adding stuff like that, Thorium. That’s what this game needs.

The one real bummer about the gameplay is that your pickaxe is the one and only weapon you have available. This fits thematically, but being forced to getting up close and personal with enemies is never preferable in roguelikes. Plus, limiting yourself to one weapon severely limits the types of power-ups you can create. There seem to be no axe modifiers in the item pool. Because of this, you’re always swinging or throwing your axe in a very set way. Even if we just stick to this one damage dealer, it would be in the game’s favor to have see modifiers that change its properties for a single run to up the variety even further.

UnderMine Early Access Preview | Striking it rich

UnderMine Boss Gameplay

The number of enemy varieties in the early floors seems low and should be increased. Some rare encounters or surprise sub-bosses would be nice to fix this issue, especially since the current bosses seem to go away after you defeat them. Items should also have more synergy too, especially the bomb power-ups that currently rewrite each other on pickup. It seems impossible to “break” UnderMine as you can with Isaac, which might be a good thing to some. Chaos is usually great but so wanting to earn every bit of progress too.

Speaking of, UnderMine does seem weighed towards always giving players some bit of progress after each run. While you’re rescuing merchants Gungeon-style, their upgrades act more like Rogue Legacy. You can improve the damage of your pickaxe, boost your health and unlock new items with blueprints. None of these upgrades ever go away, meaning that your runs get longer and longer as you keep going.

That’s the best-case scenario for a game like UnderMine. What started off as a brief session for this preview has turned into days of going back in for one more run. It’s clear that UnderMine really has something going for it, even in this incomplete state. This is the type of roguelike that fans always seek out, and it would be wise to keep on eye on this one before its 2020 launch. If things continue on the track they’re on now, we’re looking at another 100-hour obsession for a lot players that love a solid, well-built entry in the genre.

GameRevolution previewed UnderMine Steam on PC via with a copy provided by the publisher.