Even among Experience Inc’s impressive stable of dungeon RPGs, Undernauts: Labyrinth of Yomi is a game that truly stands out. If the stunning promotional artwork for it above doesn’t immediately grab your attention, consider the setting: a dystopian ‘70s Tokyo in which a mysterious structure suddenly appeared out of nowhere and promptly became a source of shady mining operations—and a source of wealth built at the expense of an exploited, expendable workforce. Experience makes unique, engrossing dungeon crawlers, but even they’ve never made anything quite like this.
From the moment you start up the game, Undernauts’ depiction of a labour rights hellscape is as stark as it is pointed. Yomi, as this strange structure is known, is rich in a resource called argen, prompting many a profit-seeking corporation to hire miners—the titular undernauts—to brave its otherworldly dangers. But only the most desperate would take on such a dangerous occupation, and the companies benefiting from their labour are only too happy to take shortcuts on health and safety in order to maximise their profits. Undernauts is a horror-themed game, full of gruesome demons and nightmarish landscapes, but where the biggest horrors of all are working conditions of people with no other choice.
From what might, at first glance, seem like a very simple read on seizing the means of production, Undernauts embarks on a deep exploration of capitalist systems, from the fickle whims of “market forces” to the way power structures and inequalities reproduce themselves. Against the ‘70s backdrop, and through the lens of a particularly grim vision of anti-unionism, laissez-faire economics pushed to the most obscene limits, and the poverty and desperation that comes with economic recession, it achieves a potent, unflinching deconstruction of the foundations of capitalism.
That all goes hand-in-hand with the horror theme of Undernauts. Yomi is filled with horrific creatures, but the most terrifying of all are the “Sinners” who embody all the worst excesses of greed and corruption. Indeed, not all the demons you encounter are hostile—there are some you can talk to and glean information from, and beyond being key to solving the labyrinth’s many puzzles, they carve an image of Yomi’s residents being caught up in similar struggles and conflicts. They’re not necessarily working to line the pockets of their masters with gold, but they’re just as oppressed and exploited. Expendable, just like you and your squad. In a way, you’re in this together.
The dungeons themselves are as bleak and oppressive as you’d expect: cavernous mines, subterranean graveyards, fiendish prison complexes. They’re intricate and detailed, making the process of methodically mapping them out a satisfying one—Experience Inc really are masters of their craft when it comes to labyrinth design, and Undernauts’ multi-level, trap-filled, winding halls are up there with the best of them.
It’s a classic crawler in a lot of ways, sticking close to the Wizardry mould, but it’s not without its unique twists. In keeping with the industrial theme, construction plays a big role: finding places to install new doorways, ladders, and the like is a cornerstone of making progress through each maze. You’ll only have blueprints for a doorway at first, but as you drive deeper and kill Sinners, new structures become available, bringing with them new routes of exploration and new paths forward. The catch: you’ll need to fund their construction out of your own pocket—can’t have your bosses losing profits!—and the work to produce the materials relies on the literal blood sacrifice of a mysterious girl who can’t die, but absolutely can feel every bit of pain. The cycle of progress and profit at the expense of health and wellbeing continues, and you’re not just entrenched in it, but complicit, whether you want to be or not.
Those monster interactions I mentioned before play a big role, too. Vital information for solving puzzles is often hidden behind outlandish exchanges and negotiations that call Shin Megami Tensei to mind. Sometimes, the only way forward might be to attack a creature that’s minding it’s own business and is no threat to you. Remember what I said about being in this together? In Undernauts, the necessity of your survival and your overseers’ profits means that, sometimes, you’re just as much a monster as those you fight.
The combat itself is a classic turn-based setup, with a little twist in its “Switch Boost” mechanic. In short, every turn you can choose to activate one of three party-wide power-ups to either reduce skill costs to zero, increase defence and give a health top-up, or a chance at more treasure. There’s no downside to using them, but they need to be recharged after each use, which you can only do by opting not to use a boost on a given turn—bringing with it a welcome layer of strategy for longer, harder fights and a convenient way to quickly deal with random encounters.
Despite the grim setting and dungeon crawler genre’s reputation for challenge, Undernauts is surprisingly forgiving. For narrative reasons, you generally can’t get a game over—getting wiped out in battle will simply respawn you at your base camp, albeit with a hefty hospital bill for reviving your KO’d companions (you didn’t expect universal healthcare in Yomi, did you?). This also means that the rare moments where you can get an actual game over, and dramatic story beats that come with them, are much more tense and impactful.
A decent array of classes that both feel unique and fill familiar RPG archetypes gives party composition a nice balance between depth, ease of use, and the freedom to experiment without fear of digging yourself into a hole with a bad build. Skill points can be reset and reassigned at any time, for free, so you can really just go nuts with trying different things or adapting your party setup to whatever you’re dealing with at a given time. Even job advancement, and the weighty choice of choosing how to spend rare resources to specialise each of your undernauts’ jobs, comes with the freedom of being able to switch between unlocked specialties at will.
This uncharacteristic approachability makes Undernauts an unexpectedly good introduction to dungeon crawlers as a whole. It’s still challenging, but places the challenge more on the specific strategies for individual encounters and exploration puzzles than on long-term party planning or heavy penalties for failure.
But, as enjoyable as the dungeon crawling in Undernauts is, it’s the story that it tells that’ll most grab the attention of crawler fans and newcomers alike. An incisive deconstruction of capitalism that’s thoughtful, pointed, yet deliberately blunt in its commentary, unfolding through one of the most unique and intriguing settings you’ll find in a videogame, makes Undernauts: Labyrinth of Yomi one of Experience’s best—and one that deserves attention far beyond the usual DRPG niche.
Undernauts: Labyrinth of Yomi
Developer: Experience Inc
Publisher: Aksys Games
Genre: Dungeon crawler, RPG
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.