Preview | Empires of the Undergrowth

This species of ant has to be preempted in its attacks, as it can burrow through walls that are impassable to you — and won’t hesitate to carve a path straight to your queen.
Set to be crawling into the Steam store soon, Empires of the Undergrowth is an ant colony strategy game and a real gem in the making. Based in Birmingham, the team of three raised almost double their Kickstarter goal in 2016 and are set to release this summer, but have pushed the window back by a margin to ensure the best quality. We take a look at the latest demo.

You know how it goes. You wake up one morning and realise that over the course of your life, you’ve never once owned an ant farm, never had the fun of watching little tunnels develop or larvae appear in the chambers. Determined to make things right, you grab your trowel and head out into your ant-infested garden, returning triumphant with your tupperware-bound colony. You watch them grow and feed and die.

And then, of course, it’s you who gets the blame for the ant infestation in the lounge, despite it being an entirely separate species. And of course you have to return them to their little spot in the garden only to roll over them with a lawnmower a week later. You throw your arms up in the air. “Why can’t this be easier?” you cry.

Good news: it can.

Digging out tunnels can be risky — if you happen to hit an empty pocket, it can open up paths to bigger, meaner insects.
Digging out tunnels can be risky — if you happen to hit an empty pocket, it can open up paths to bigger, meaner insects.

You begin with one queen and a handful of workers, but this is no garden species; this is formica ereptor, the gene thief ant. In terms of gameplay, this opens up the possibility to play as more than one species, as you overpower other colonies and integrate them into your own. This particular feature may not be available in the demo, but even the one other species you encounter displays unique traits that could be useful if you had them under your control.

Your objectives, or those of your colony, vary from level to level, but it’s generally a given that you try to stay alive. If any enemies get close enough to attack your queen, you’re pretty much done for. Without her, your colony is doomed and the invasive march of ereptor across all antdom becomes nothing but a pipe dream. Level-winning objectives range from wiping out all enemies in the area to simply surviving waves of invading black ants.

Since you only start with a queen and some workers, it’s important to grow your colony. This can be done by placing worker or soldier tiles on dug ground. Each tile expands your capacity of that type of ant by one and as long as workers are assigned (more on that later) to carry eggs to them, they will restock your colony to that number. You can watch the workers carry eggs from the queen to the tiles and see an oddly hypnotic growth animation as the eggs become larvae, then pupae, and hatch.

This species of ant has to be preempted in its attacks, as it can burrow through walls that are impassable to you — and won’t hesitate to carve a path straight to your queen.
This species of ant has to be preempted in its attacks, as it can burrow through walls that are impassable to you — and won’t hesitate to carve a path straight to your queen.

But each tile requires food, and each egg needs food to hatch, so finding a source is vital. You can sense this in the dark, undug spaces around you, indicated by green outlines (possibly replaced by a knife and fork outline in the latest version). Clicking and dragging through passable hexes will mark them out to be dug and if your workers are close enough, they’ll dig the path you’ve set.

If your workers aren’t close enough, you can get them closer using a pheromone marker. There are five markers you can use and you can allocate groups of ants (separated by spawn tile area) to a marker by dragging their icon over. Selecting the marker and clicking the spot you want them to go to will form a pheromone trail. They will carry out any tasks, such as digging, fighting, stocking nests or collecting food, in the area. Food is carried to stockpiles which can be expanded for more food.

Soldier ants are managed in a similar way, but can only collect food and fight. If anything you need more of them than workers, such are the threats you face. It takes them a while to travel to a new pheromone marker, so it’s best to preempt attacks so every soldier is in the right place at the right time. You can of course try to get a head start by hunting down your enemies, shown as exclamation marks in the blackness. It’s satisfying as large bugs fall to your soldiers: they collapse and are chopped up and carried away in pieces.

Massive bugs are a real threat, able to move at lightning speed and reach your queen before you’ve even noticed it’s on the move. It takes a concerted effort and a large number of soldiers to deal with them.
Massive bugs are a real threat, able to move at lightning speed and reach your queen before you’ve even noticed it’s on the move. It takes a concerted effort and a large number of soldiers to deal with them.

The interface is functional and it’s easy to see information at a glance. Although there are hotkeys for pheromones, selecting their individual columns isn’t too tricky and it’s easy to see where they’ve been placed by the smoke on the screen and their markers on the minimap. What would be nice to add is if there were some way of encountering a species and unlocking information about them to read later. Doing this during gameplay wouldn’t make much sense for a real-time strategy, but some kind of bestiary on the main menu would be great.

And of course, a lot of the charm in this game is in the creatures themselves. With beautiful models and animations, some kind of gallery would be a great place to showcase them and brush up on bug identification during gameplay. Even the environment they tunnel through looks visually appealing and developments on the current version are even more exciting.

The music in Empires of the Undergrowth ranges from creepy crawly music that will send gleeful shivers down your spine to full-on dramatic battle music that wouldn’t sound too out of place in Dragon Age: Origins’ combat scenes. The resultant ambience, ranging from tribal to electro, is an amazing combination that will see you hooked on the scurrying of little legs under the Earth.

If you check out the music artist’s SoundCloud, they appear to have an electronic mashup of David Attenborough’s narration on ants. That earns some definite bonus points.

By far the easiest level of the demo, even this early stage is addictive.
By far the easiest level of the demo, even this early stage is addictive.

The demo offers three levels to non-backers and while the first is simple, the last two certainly offer a challenge. It’s difficult to keep on top of bugs which constantly arrive from the surface or that burrow through your walls to find you and if you let you supply lines falter, neglect your army or forget to protect your queen, it’s easy to die. But somehow death isn’t frustrating, even if it’s just before you would have won the level. The journey to that point is fun enough to outweigh the pain of losing. As such, and with a variety of levels still to come, this game will be hard to put down and easy to come back to.

Despite the demo being several months old by now, there are very few bugs. Sometimes ants don’t seem to make it to their pheromone marker and sometimes eggs don’t hatch when they should, but this doesn’t happen often enough to be a major nuisance. The demo itself, with a couple more levels, could easily have been released already. However the new work being done on the game — with trips to the surface, more species to fight and integrate and more levels to win — will make it something truly special.

It’s hard not to fall in love with Empires of the Undergrowth. With so much content due to be presented in such an excellent form, its eventual public release will be something to count down the days toward. At the time of writing, that deadline isn’t concrete, so we’ll be waiting with baited breath all the while.

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