Going Under Review

As you explore Fizzle headquarters, Going Under’s lucid hub world, you’ll stumble on the phrase “make the world a better place” plastered in bubbly font against the wall of the entrance hall. Except you probably won’t realise what it says at first glance. The words are mangled, displaced in different directions like only the finest Live Laugh Love decor, so much so that the message itself is lost, for a time, in a daze of meritless confusion.

You play as Jackie, the latest recruit to Cubicle’s (a drone-delivery Amazon equivalent) impoverished intern initiative, hired to accelerate success and disrupt industries by paying it forward, otherwise known as working for exposure, experience and/or exhaustion. All this capitalist jargon is delivered in a brief animated PowerPoint presentation, something anyone who’s worked in a customer service role for a multinational company will find causes an unwelcome reminiscence. After suffering through this introduction, you’re given your first task at your new unpaid position — venture into the monster-infested dungeons of failed tech unicorns.

There are three dungeons to complete, all of which are available to you fairly early on, though they grow in complexity over time. There’s Joblin, a Frankensteinian LinkedIn/Uber/Indeed hybrid which promises freelancers constant employment and its app user’s a pool of employees who’ll perform any job for a minuscule price. You’ll quickly unlock the colourful slide down to WinkyDinks, a dating app where users communicate only in emojis, and Styxcoin, the latest craze in the precarious land of cryptocurrencies. A couple more tech start-up catacombs would’ve been welcome, but those that are here are memorably distinct with their own gimmicks. The story also does a commendable job of keeping these three areas interesting and making your recurrent descents feel worthwhile.

Can somebody please seize the means of production?

Between the recharge rooms, ice breaker cut scenes and power-ups based on the company card, Going Under deftly conveys the horrors of post-capitalism and 2020 workplace culture. You can invest in avocado toast instead of a mortgage or steal a ride-share vehicle to drive over a pack of goblins before it explodes. As mythic and arcane as Hades’ underworld is, Supergiant’s recent effort isn’t nearly as contemporary of a cyclical nightmare as the one presented here.

Jackie’s repeating katabasis, though presented in a light-hearted manner, is infinitely relatable. Though everyone may look spongey and exaggerated, like those cylindrical floats you sometimes find in swimming pools, the reality being explored here is a painfully familiar one. It holds an entire funfair’s worth of darkened mirrors up at our unfortunate present; its nepotism, prejudices and dependence on incessant commodification. Our present, after all, now boasts far-right backed Clearview AI with its racist facial recognition technology, VIDA Select’s deceptive matchmaking and that one oxygen bar in Delhi selling 15-minute bursts of fresh air.

It would’ve been easy to make a game like this with an altogether pessimistic or accusatory outlook. Somehow, Going Under balances the misery of vapid mission statements and carefully adopted colour palettes with a roster of characters who’re both nuanced and engaging. It’s these regular interactions with your bosses and coworkers, from sparse observations to their comical requests, that keep the continued runs feeling fresh. It also ensures that the rightful criticisms being levied by Aggro Crab here are presented within a game that’s also invigorating to spend time with.

Are you having problems at work?

The combat loop itself is essentially Breath of the Wild’s if it were narratively justified and actually fun (editors note: this opinion is that of the writer, and also wrong). You can swing or throw a host of mundane office items —  laptops, waste paper baskets and filing cabinets — as well as more madcap wieldables like aubergine bats (tastefully named low hanging fruit), money guns and giant cleavers. Much like with the dungeons, a handful more weapons would’ve been ideal to differentiate runs a little more. Some of your coworker’s requests can also be a bit too specific; the combat is intentionally chaotic, so some of the fiddlier tasks, or those that require you to protect followers, can quickly become more trouble than they’re worth.

You’ll later gain access to apps that give you even more options though, as well as the ability to choose which of your coworkers you want to serve as your mentor. The latter overhauls certain key rooms or skills, promoting different approaches depending on your loadout, whilst both help prevent too much repetition. The apps are well-themed too, ranging from one that lets you set an inflatable tubeman distraction to one that lets you drop status-effect chatboxes onto enemies.

Dungeon runs become a frenzied scramble for strong weapons, with naturally occurring decisions like whether to use your invincibility-bestowing app on the next room or save it for the boss on the next floor. This combat would be engaging enough on its own, but the setting elevates it. You begin to think — if these sexually suggestive demons you’re thwacking with an ergonomic keyboard are the remnants of those that came before, what’s to become of us? 

This company is a family

Going Under manages to upcycle the refuse of our everyday routines; its a Big Art Attack of 2-hour commutes, stolen tips and that one pinball machine your boss bought to make a chill room after he laid off three of your coworkers during a global pandemic. It’s one of the most honest investigations of existential digitisation and corporate greed ever made in videogame form. It addresses the farce of employment with creativity and humour, two things no malignant narcissist with a modest cash injection could ever take from us.

It also has one of the most anarchic, diverse combat systems of any roguelike, which rewards experimentation yet almost never thrusts you into runs that feel unfair due to bad weapon drops. With such a busy month in terms of noteworthy indie releases, it’d be an absolute crime for this curious gem to go unnoticed. There’s never been a more appropriate time for Going Under to exist, and we’re living in a far better place now that it does. 

Now, have you ever considered investing in Styxcoin?

[Reviewed on PC]

9/10