Condensing the Experience, Inc DRPG standard into a compact, systems light turn-based dungeon crawl that looks and sounds great turned out to be one of the best ideas anyone’s had in years.:
I love DRPGs. Dungeon crawlers. Specifically first-person, turn-based, party-driven dungeon crawlers. But for the past two years I’ve kinda been bored with this genre. I bought a new 2DS XL and loaded it up with Etrian Odysseys. I bought a gently used imported white PSP just so I could play some of the best that console had to offer. But how many times am I going to replay Elminage Original? It’s probably not healthy. I bought the release of Stranger in Sword City for the Switch hoping that a change in console would work some magic. But if Labyrinth of Refrain didn’t do it, neither would this game I already beat on the Vita twice over. I emulated the PS2 Wizardry on my desktop just to feel something. I went looking for translation packs for the various Wizardry Gaiden games. But I’d start them up, I’d prod my friends to sign up to become characters, and then I’d get bored, and delete it. I put the Vita, the PSP, and the DS back in the drawer; I let the Switch gather dust in its cradle. Someday my blobber prince will come. Maybe.
Experience, Inc makes a lot of DRPGs. They all more or less follow the same formula. Sure, there’s variations and they have a tendency towards (often unnecessarily) convoluted class systems. But they’re all really solid mechanically, and they graft an enjoyable (if predictable), relentlessly shonen anime storyline to them. But it’s also been nearly six years since their last DRPG hit US consoles. Honestly, it’s been slightly dire times for fans of the first-person, turn-based dungeon crawl. With no new Etrian Odyssey on the horizon and the Wizardry Renaissance never really leaving Japan’s borders, it’s been hard out here. European and American developers are much more interested in Rogue or Beholder-likes, and even those are in short-supply.
So when I heard the Undernauts: Labyrinth of Yomi was a Horror-That-Came-To-1970s-Tokyo treatment of their classic formula—and that I could play it on a contemporary console instead of sitting at my desk or digging out something from storage?—I put my hand up early. I’m glad I did.
Undernauts begins with a giant, mysterious structure that has thrust itself into the middle of ‘70s Tokyo. It’s dangerous and foreboding and contains all manner of previously unknown mineral riches and more. A new economic and societal paradigm unfolds as industries spring up around the site and begin to explore, experiment, and develop from the discoveries. They name the colossal structure Yomi—a new frontier with a broad shadow where people are born and raised. And die.
Undernauts are the collective name given to the employees of these mining and expedition corporations—the intrepid worker-warriors who brave the Yominan darkness to kill monsters and extract value for the companies they represent. Some achieve great success, but most get chewed up by the endless machinery of capitalism that blossoms all around the colossal maze. It ends up being a unique take on the dungeon crawler premise because it’s not purely for the adventuring heroes’ fortune and glory. Sure, there is the promise of profit, but you’re working for a company this time, and Experience’s writers are keenly aware of what they’re doing, even if they don’t often take the space to explore it.
Still, on its face, Undernauts: Labyrinth of Yomi is a game about low-level managers and the employees they supervise. It’s setting is the chaos of job sites. The real evil isn’t the monsters you face—it’s the depravity of the c-suite, holding companies, and puppeteering shareholders. The promise of shares. But also an absence of OSHA protections, a lack of equipment, training, and support. Undernauts is both the body horror of Upton Sinclair and Screaming Mad George. The story beings with a description of the boom period of Yomi exploration, the big corporations and all the money made, and then it bottoms out. That’s where the game itself starts and stays—with a small company trying to make it big by going into the less safe areas of the giant hulk. Big risks and no guarantee you won’t die. Who would take this job? Here it’s “derelicts” who can’t get jobs elsewhere—kids fresh out of college and young women in the middle of an economic downturn, ex-cons, and the disgraced. When the Yominan boom bottoms out greedy companies stretch their already thin ethics to the breaking point and prey on the desperate.
The very first character you have to create, the player-protagonist avatar of the group? Not a Boss boss. Not even a mid-level manager (maybe someday if you’re a team player and produce results). Instead you’re the supervisor at a small-time mining outfit that aligns all somewhat neatly with the doomed crew of the Nostromo. You have to make a Ripley. And live through the doomed final minutes of their previous crew.
All Experience, Inc DRPGs begin with a player-protagonist character in some state of crisis. They’re really good at this. Never “You walk into a tavern.” Always “Your plane crashes on an alien planet” or “You wake up in a sewer on top of a body pile.” In the opening minutes of Undernauts, Your Ripley’s whole crew gets slaughtered and eaten by a little demonic girl, and now you have to get back to home base and build a new squad—and fast, because your boss is up your ass.
Welcome to the job. Welcome to Yomi.
Whenever I start one of these games, I make a post, “Who wants to die in a dungeon?” Sometimes the dungeon gets a description, or the delve process itself. “Who wants to go Mad and be obliterated by eldritch forces as I recover my ancestral fortunes” would be a good sign-up post for Darkest Dungeon, for instance. For Undernauts, a game that is extremely about labor, I asked, “Okay, who wants to sign up for an extremely dangerous 100% commission job?”
Frequently in other Wizardry-like DRPGS you have to make a starting character, but it’s not explicitly the central operating figure. The player often takes on a more amorphous role as bodiless orchestrator, or if so choosing, can dedicate a party slot to themselves. Undernauts is explicit. The player must create a supervisor. There are hierarchies that need to be followed. For Experience, a principal protagonist isn’t unusual, but to specifically task the player with this kind of relationship strikes a different tone.
Em is always first with their hand up. It’s uncanny. My go-to cleric. They’re the center of every dungeon party for the past several years. Like I said, there’s always the one asshole with the locked and loaded character idea, the one who isn’t shy about going first. And sure, sometimes their dry pragmatism makes them come off as an asshole, but like every priest-class in your dungeon party, they’re indispensable (and they know it). They’re our Ripley. Everyone orbits out from there.
So I made them my supervisor. My section chief. After all, they’re the one with the Office Job. While the rest of us flail at retail or media creation, they punch in, do the work, and come home tired. They present as the least online of us, and yet the one who always knows what online thing we’re flipping out about. They show up to tell us to give them their phone, or how to reorder our lives. They can only do this because truly, they are extremely online with us. You couldn’t ask for a better supervisor.
It’s always a delight seeing the range of character portraits in a DRPG and then assigning them to your friends. Who’s the Dwarven meatwall? The aristocratic but sturdy Werebear? Who’s the ‘90s Madhouse Studios anime sorceress with the tits up to her throat? I saw this guy and knew it was Em. Look at this Hiroyuki Sanada by way of Nyanta-looking motherfucker. This is a mfer who put a new suit on a credit card for the job interview, but can pull off the fantasy of having had it lined up neatly alongside others in their closet all along.
The most endearing thing about Undernauts is that its character creator isn’t really all that deep. There’s a series of illustrated character portraits to choose from. The canonical Undernauts ones, and then some brought in from games like Stranger of Sword City and Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy. I stuck purely with the Undernauts-themed ones because I like the vibe and they’re beautifully done. Each character gets a bio, but it can be customized manually or rewritten entirely. The writing was endearing enough that I kept everyone’s stock, with pronoun changes as necessary. Each character also gets to start with a trinket. A little stat-boost item that can be meaningful, useful, or both. Austin’s character never made use of the stat bonus on the Joker playing card I gave him, but its item description suited him best. Em got a buddha statuette; the +1 to Wisdom was very helpful for them as a cleric, but also personally meaningful. Similarly each character picks a background, which provides starting stat blocks that may or may not be ideal for the character. Min-maxers can find the ideal path for their perfect team, while roleplayers can have fun with it. Em got saddled with “White Collar” because of their real office job, but that isn’t “optimal” for a cleric’s stat interests. But Jackson, their podcasting compatriot, fell perfectly into the “Creative” background which aligned nicely to the sorcerer class.
If it seems like I’m spending a lot of time describing the character/party creation process, there’s a reason for that—there are three pillars of dungeoneering, and none is more important than the party, which is made up of characters. Undernauts puts a great deal of emphasis on constrained flexibility with characters. There’s no real need to ever min-max the group (it’s never as punishing as Wizardry or Etrian Odyssey can be), but it also won’t drown you in options like Stranger of Sword City or Operation Abyss. Classes are to-the-point. You won’t find anything unusual or difficult to put into your party here. There’s one tank class, one healer, and a bunch of readily intelligible damage dealers. Progression is straightforward. Every level you get an ability point and a skill point. Spend them however you want. I made one of everything, and while at times some felt more necessary than others, there’s really no mathematically wrong choice.
Once your party is assembled, it’s time to hit the dungeon. Like most DRPGs, this is a blank map and a first-person view of a hallway. A graph-paper layout waiting to be filled in one square at a time. Some tiles will have traps, others will have points of interest, but most will just be blank, a space to traverse and to flip a coin as to whether this one will lead to a chance encounter with enemies. Yominans of all types populate this dungeon, and you’re going to fight hundreds of them before you even clear the first zone. The first special task (consider these the major story beats you’ll receive from your boss, or your boss’ boss) is to find the second camp. It’s not far, but your fresh explorers and even low-level enemies can pack an unexpected punch while you’re undergeared, underleveled, and lacking in utility items.
Of course, the camp has been destroyed, with everyone there slaughtered. You meet a strange, metaphysically adept girl in a wheelchair who spends much of her time between states of hyperaroused supernatural awareness or catatonia (if you’re not familiar with this anime trope, it’s well worn). Naturally the instant you meet her everything goes to hell. An unseen assailant mastermind makes himself known. Your ability to leave Yomi is shut off, sealing you and everyone you work with and for inside. The cryptic and traumatized girl in a wheelchair is your only clue to move forward.
The dungeon itself and how you relate to it is core to these games. You’re going to be spending a lot of time in these tunnels, and pathways, and hallways, and other synonyms for the channel-like space between impassable structures, so you have to make sure you are fine tuning out the aesthetics of the hallway, or enjoy them. Undernauts isn’t the most impressive (a title still held by Etrian Odyssey 3), but it’s not bad either. The tunnels are ignorable but pleasingly weird. And it’s inhabited by odd enemies like motherfucking bug skeletons, horny spiderlady wardens, and little angry murder mousemen—and that’s just a small sample of the first biome. But most importantly, the soundtrack is actually something worth listening to. One of the most crucial innovations that Experience has brought to dungeon crawling is saxophone. It’s novel, weird, and good beyond being unexpected. I don’t know if it’s as transformative as the Kings Field IV soundtrack (what is?) but I’ll still be thinking about it long after I’ve moved onto my next dungeon delve (also let me buy the soundtrack, Experience). You’re also not really missing anything if after 20 hours of experimental dungeon sax you start listening to a podcast—none of the weirdo NPCs you meet are voiced.
As for the actual dungeoneering, it’s pretty standard. A combination of exploration (filling in squares on the map), killing monsters (duh), getting loot (yay!), and occasionally solving puzzles or doing quests. That’s it. You’ll eventually finish one section of Yomi and something narrative will happen that propels you to the next broad labyrinth of hallways. Byzantine mines, creepy forests, the hallways of a beautiful ancient tower. Every place has new puzzles, new monsters (mostly palette swaps, that’s how DRPGs roll), and more loot. You need to kill monsters to get loot, and loot is king to surviving the Yominans who want to pull you apart at every soft joint (which seem preferable to being consumed by the nightmare of capitalism in this game/real life tee bee aitch). Levels come surprisingly slowly, skills come slower still (and the promise of advancement is limited by a finite item). But you’ll end every battle with a trove of garbage swords, torn underwear, and maybe a few decent things you can hand out to your trusty underlings. Play your cards right and you’ll end battles quickly and with more loot than you can carry. Literally.
Playing your cards right means knowing how to use your techno-supernatural deep-brain electro-stim device that’s implanted in you and your supervisees (it’s a narrative wrapper for a boost mechanic). Zap them one way and they’ll be able to supercharge their skills and spells and cast for a full round while ignoring MP costs. Zap them a different way and they’ll get a boost to defense. The third way you can zap them causes their accuracy and evasion to shoot up, and also enemies will drop a double helping of sweet, sweet treasure. In more complicated fights juggling all three boosts is key to success. Using the Dura phase to set up stance changes and low MP cost buffs, then switching to Overcharge for expensive spells and abilities, a round where you don’t cast and just pick away with basic attacks to set up a clean and decisive all-out attack with the Neuro switch engaged for double treasure. You can only carry 100 things at a time, so successful switch management means a lot of return trips to sell/break down loot and upgrade your gear. There’s a fast travel item that is free and infinitely reusable. You’ll just have to walk your way back to where you left off. But it’s better to return and melt down your items into Arge (the essence of Yomi and what passes for “gold” in this game) before returning to the endless hallways.
That’s blobbers. You came to fight monsters in a dungeon for loot. If you ONLY want an action/horror story about bad demonic shit appearing in the middle of Tokyo suddenly and causing all sorts of societal upheaval and death, while a ragtag group of sexy misfit adolescents contend with all manner of problematic monster design nightmares with previously unrealized powers for a corrupt government / corporation / school / other form of organizational authority: Hello, let me tell you about my good friend Anime.
That being said, there are innovations here, like the boosting. The other innovation in dungeoneering, and my only pro-tip should you pick this game up, is Undernauts allows every character the opportunity to reset their skills at will, any time outside of combat, for no penalty. Did you specialize deep into two-handed swords for your tactician? Did you just pick up a sick elemental damage spear +9 that also gives a huge stat buff? No worries. Open the Squad (it’s really called that) menu and with a few button presses they’re now a master of polearms. Because certain characters have “until you return to base” abilities, you’ll quickly find out that you can put all your points into maxing those buffs, casting them, then immediately respeccing those skill points into other abilities for each run. Will grognards call it cheap? Yes. Does it rule? Extremely. But like summoning bros to wreck bosses or throwing dungpies over the archway to kill the Capra Demon in Dark Souls, it’s baked into the systems of the game. This is intended player behavior. And it really sets up how important the relationship the home base is to the party when dungeon crawling.
You need to get used to returning home, as Home is the third crucial pillar of the dungeon crawler. Your home base in Undernauts is a small tent encampment with a fusion reactor (don’t ask). The president of your company can be found here listening to the radio in the tent where you’ll revive fallen comrades, while your direct supervisor can be found in another tent where you’ll manage your party and party members. There’s a storage space to put stuff you can’t carry, and the fusion reactor where you’ll melt down items and turn them into other items. As far as home bases go, it’s okay. It serves the thematic purpose well enough—this is not a real home. There’s no inn, no friendly blacksmith or weirdo apothecarian. It’s just you, your boss, his boss, and a weird, traumatized girl in the glow of a nuclear reactor. They’ll give you missions, and occasionally Something Narrative will happen here. It’s a little underwhelming, but it’s also the right amount of misery for an office space. And that’s what this is—it’s the office. You can hang around and listen to the corporate radio if you want, but it’s all pretty dire. There’s an awesome background tune here though. Dungeon Sax? Meet Homebase Dub.
Oh, and if you’re still worried about the making items thing? There’s literally only two resources, don’t worry, it’s fine, it’s not Crafting. I guess if you wanted Crafting, I’m sorry, but literally every other game exists for you now. Like everything else in this game, it’s very simple.
Ultimately, it’s this same simplicity that turns out to be its greatest weakness. I made one character for each class and I didn’t have any difficulty keeping my rotating seats roughly in the same levels. By the end I had enough points to maximize skill loadouts, and the aforementioned ability to swap skill points at will with no penalty means there are no hard choices. The innovations here are great and the mechanical simplicity was exactly what I needed to think more about what I want from this genre. I loved my time with Undernauts (especially the soundtrack and the writing), but I’m not sure I’ll return to it when I get the impulse to play another DRPG. And that’s okay, because where Undernauts: Labyrinth of Yomi shines is in being a fantastic on-ramp for the genre. Dungeon crawlers get a reputation for being obtuse bullshit and too punishing in addition to being grindy. Undernauts whittles down the first two for new players, and makes it easier to embrace and find joy in the grind. I get asked a lot which game I recommend for people wanting to get into Wizardry-likes. And until now I didn’t have a good answer; everything was a series of compromises and required me to lay out caveats or provide upfront guidance. What Experience, Inc has done with Undernauts is finally make a satisfying DRPG that looks good, plays well, and I can unequivocally say is where people new to the genre can get a taste of the richer, weirder treasures below.
Undernauts: Labyrinth of Yomi was developed by Experience Inc. and published by Aksys. Our review is based on the PlayStation 5 version. It is also available for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.