By Evan Norris 22nd Mar 2020 | 2,561 views
The freshman effort from Venezuelan developer Paper Castle Games, Underhero is a platforming RPG-lite that serves as a suitable substitute for Paper Mario, absent now for four years. With a cast of colorful characters, an accessible and fun battle system, and a quirky, subversive narrative, it should speak most powerfully to fans of Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi. Due to some faults—unrefined platforming, excessive backtracking, and mediocre visuals—the game doesn't reach the lofty heights of its spiritual predecessors, but overall it's a serviceable, approachable role-playing game.
A lot of modern indie games have broken the fourth wall and poked fun at game development and design, but Underhero exploits this meta-narrative better than most. It concerns a masked underling—little more than cannon fodder—taking up the mantle of hero after, shockingly, killing the chosen champion. Armed with a talking sword and a generational mandate, he sets out on a quest through the Chestnut Kingdom to defeat an evil overlord.
With a sarcastic attitude toward video game tropes and with plenty of unexpected revelations, the story in Underhero is consistently clever and surprising. It's routinely funny, too, thanks to an offbeat sense of humor and a large roster of silly NPCs, including a bossy magical sword, a moth with dissociative identity disorder, and a ghostly, disembodied hand who enjoys rude language and gestures. As you travel through the Chestnut Kingdom, be sure to talk to everyone, and more than once (be sure to linger after the end credits, too, to see a glimpse of things to come).
Outside of story events and conversations, Underhero is divided more or less into equal parts platforming and combat. The Masked Kid will explore the Chestnut Kingdom by walking, running, jumping, and gliding, and then lock into a combat screen when he gets too close to a patrolling enemy.
Combat is a highlight. It might look turn-based, but it unfolds in real time, with the Masked Kid avoiding enemy attacks and striking vulnerable spots according to a slowly-recharging stamina gauge. If you decipher your rival's tells, you'll be able to duck projectiles and leap over outstretched fangs, and then land a crushing blow of your own. Be sure to pause between strikes, though, as a depleted stamina meter will leave your defenseless. As new weapons and enemy patterns are added to the mix—alongside breakable shields and "rush mode", a powerful chain of sword combos—the fighting system becomes more nuanced and complex. Furthermore, Paper Castle Games has added a fun rhythmic element, whereby attacks that land with the beat of the music inflict additional damage.
There's also a social component to combat. You can elect to chat with enemies before battle begins—for helpful information or for a laugh—and should you wish to avoid combat entirely you can always use coins to pay them off. This also introduces a bit of morality to the proceedings. If you sneak by or bribe the guards in the game's final dungeon, for example, you will see a slightly different ending.
The other main pillar of gameplay, platforming, fares less successfully. When it's used sparingly, to transition players between narrative beats and battles, it's fine, but when it lingers it starts to reveal some inadequacies. Jumping is a bit floaty and loose, and collision detection isn't always on target.
Traversal becomes especially frustrating in the context of labyrinthine level designs, which begin to appear in World 2. Underhero has a lot of clever puzzles and rewarding secret rooms but they're often tied together by maze-like levels that demand a lot of tedious backtracking and guesswork. Without a permanent map, it's also easy to get disoriented in these layouts (the game provides map stations at several intervals but it's not the same). Since the game leans into larger, longer platforming sections in its final act, it tends to get worse as it goes.
Luckily, Paper Castle is usually quick to break up any monotony with a diverting mini-game, chase sequence, or quiz show. Throughout the game, you'll find yourself surfing down an erupting volcano, participating in an ice skating competition, and racing a speedy ghost through the woods. This inventiveness translates to boss battles as well, which unfold as both rhythm-based encounters and platforming trials. The final boss battle is particularly clever and (literally) outside-the-box, although it's a bit clumsy mechanically. Really, that's Underhero in a nutshell: a game filled with subversive notions and creative conceits that struggles a bit in execution.
The same holds true for the game's graphics, which are colorful and imaginative, but also chintzy at times. Several of the models, particularly bosses, look great but empty spaces, simple backgrounds, and recycled assets combine to give the title a low-budget look and feel. On the performance front, things are mostly fine, outside of some brief slowdown during the return trip to World 2. The big exception: a near-crippling bug in the final area where a silver key will phase through a moving platform and fall into lava. Using a published workaround—exiting to the main menu, continuing from the last checkpoint, and then halting the first two moving platforms before engaging the third—I was able to complete the game, but the bug points to the fact that Underhero needed more time in QA.
Graphics and performance might not be up to par, but the music in Underhero is legitimately great, with dozens of diverse tracks from Stijn van Wakeren. Some are somber, some are goofy, others are triumphant, all are worth hearing.
With Paper Mario on ice, Underhero serves as a reasonable replacement until Nintendo decides the future of its papercraft franchise. It boasts a knowing, ironic, and sweet story, plenty of off-beat characters, an accessible and engaging battle system, great music, and a lot of bold ideas. At the same time, unfortunately, it suffers from some loose platforming, tedious level designs, graphical issues, and one nasty glitch. Still, this is a very promising start for Paper Castle, one that should lead to an even better, more refined sequel.