Previews

Empires of the Undergrowth – Early Access Look

Rising to the Top of the Food Chain

Starting out as a Kickstarter campaign all the way back in 2016, Slug Disco’s flagship RTS touches upon a widely untapped theme in video gaming. Featuring the miniature world of the undergrowth, players get to dive in and lead a colony of different ant species as they vie for dominance in the space in Empires of the Undergrowth.

EMPIRES OF THE UNDERGROWTH OVERVIEW

Empires of the Undergrowth is a unique real-time-strategy (RTS) set in the world of ants. Instead of your usual strategy game where it’s essentially people of different groups or factions vying for power, here you get different species of ants.

In Empires of the Undergrowth, you’ll be seeing the world in the perspective of an ant colony. You’ll have to dig tunnels, build nests and spawn ants all in the effort of overcoming any challenges that your ant colony might face. The game deeply focuses on the nature of ants and the miniature world they live in.  Aside from just building your colonies underground, you can explore the outside world and even dominate it. Enjoy the spectacle of a massive war of tiny proportions as you fight bugs, beetles, spiders, other ant colonies, and even bigger things like frogs and mantises.

CORE GAMEPLAY

Empires of the Undergrowth has a bunch of different game modes, each slightly different from one another with some having completely different game mechanics. But because this is an RTS, I would first like to talk about the game’s core gameplay features.

Real-Time Strategy

In Empires of the Undergrowth, everything moves in real time so quick decision making is a worthwhile skill to have. Although quick decision making is key, a high APM (Actions Per Minute) requirement like in other RTS’ like Starcraft isn’t necessary. At first the game may feel overwhelming with a bunch of new information being thrown at you. Even someone such as myself who has played RTSs for as long as I can remember got quite overwhelmed by how unorthodox the game’s mechanics were. But, after passing the hurdle of the tutorial it’s actually one of the easier real-time strategy games to play.

Empires of the Undergrowth, Leaf Cutter Ants

Base Building

Over the years, real-time strategy games have become synonymous with base building. For most RTS games at least. And Empires of the Undergrowth is no different… sort of. In this game you’ll be starting out with a single ant queen, her nest, and a group of worker ants. The game also features a hex-based base building system but it’s still an RTS through and through. The main objective in Empires of the Undergrowth, aside from dominating the competition, is the utmost survival of your ant queen. This is where the game’s base building mechanics come into consideration. 

Empires of the Undergrowth features two distinct levels in every map. The underground and the surface. Your ant nest will spawn in your own underground lair but this is also true for other ant colonies in the game. First order of business is resource gathering but we’ll talk about that later and instead move on to the second order of business, expansion. 

Building Types

The underground is filled with chambers each containing either an enemy or food, and sometimes even both. To dominate the space, you’ll first need to plan out your strategy then carefully dig tunnels through the chambers that will benefit you depending on your current stage. Aside from tunneling, you’ll also have to build certain structures like Food Storage Tiles– to increase the capacity of food your colony can hoard. Ant Nests Tiles– to spawn more worker ants or soldier ants. And highway tiles that allow your ants to move faster underground. 

Tile Leveling

Another base building mechanic is tile levels and upgrading. Each tile actually has levels with each level increasing the efficiency of the tiles effects. For Food Storage Tiles each level increases the food storage capacity. For Highway Tiles each level boosts the effectiveness of the movement speed buff provided to your ants. And for Nest Tiles each level increases the health, damage and the overall capability of their spawned ants. 

Each tile gives one, two, or three upgrade points depending on their level to all similar tiles and highway tiles surrounding it. To upgrade a tile, it first needs to reach the point requirement then you’ll have to use food to finalize the upgrade. 

Base building in Empires of the Undergrowth isn’t as complicated nor diverse as in other RTS games. It’s actually too simple for my tastes but admittedly, for an ant colony simulator I guess it does the job. 

Empires of the Undergrowth, Combat

Resource Management

Starting Out

Before you can expand you’ll first need resources to do the expanding with. Well, Empires of the Undergrowth keeps it simple… for most ant species at least. For the most part, the only resource your ant colony needs is food. During the start of your games, food will be located in isolated chambers inside your underground lair. You’ll be able to spot them as highlighted green spots. Missions will always start off with a handful of worker ants to get you going. So digging a tunnel through the chambers containing food and having your workers harvest them is always the first step to survive in the undergrowth.

Managing Food Storage

With food in hand you’ll be increasing your food capacity by building more Food Storage Tiles as well as spawning soldier ants by building their corresponding nests. With your soldier ants being the key to your colony’s expansion you’ll want to start dominating the other chambers in your underground lair once you’ve spawned your army. Hostile bugs and insects can be a threat to your colony but they also provide you with a great opportunity. Despite being a retaliatory force against your ant army, these hostile creatures also provide a lot of food for the colony.

Out To The Bigger World

But the underground lair only has enough to sustain your ant colony and eventually, you’ll be venturing out to the surface world. The surface may be abundant in resources but also in hostile competition. After breaching through the barriers your ant colony will now be vulnerable to attack from other ant colonies. Aside from that, the critters of the undergrowth provide great opportunities for expansion but at the same time, may just be the reason for your colony’s demise.

Workers and Soldiers

Empires of the Undergrowth takes a slightly different approach to the RTS formula. People who’ve played lots of RTS games will recognize how units are usually controlled in different games. Some games feature individual units that you can freely move individually while others prefer squads instead. The key distinctions between the different unit mechanics may as well dictate the complexity of a game.

For Empires of the Undergrowth, I guess it takes inspiration from a little bit of both but at the same time, not really. Instead of going for the individual or squad based unit arrangements, the game chooses to go ham on the control group feature of real-time strategy games. Technically, each ant is a single unit however, you’ll be placing them in up to five control groups. You move units by setting up a rally point called “pheromones” where your ants will move to and perform actions automatically, but can be modified through control group options.

The key components of this game’s strategy are numbers and placements. At a certain point when you reach the surface you’ll eventually be using your soldiers to guard against threats so that your workers can obtain resources for the colony. And with the same soldier ants, you’ll dominate the entirety of the map as well as the underground chambers of enemy colonies.

GAME MODES

As a Singleplayer-first RTS, Empires of the Undergrowth recognizes the challenge of giving its players much needed features for replayability. Because of this, various game modes each with their own distinct features are available for its players to explore. From a story mode that will have you evolve a genetically engineered ant species to custom games that lets you tinker your game’s settings for the perfect sandbox to even arcade levels that lets you mess around with custom scenarios with some even having completely different ways to play the game. 

Story Mode

The Story Mode is a very distinct game mode in its own right. In other RTS games, the story is usually played out in different scenarios in a linear timeline. In Empires of the Undergrowth the story plays out closer to that of a roguelike. You’ll complete a series of missions each of varying tiers and difficulty. You can also opt in to rechallenge the missions in higher difficulties earning more points in the process. Each mission tier features a specific species of ants and the story scenario will be presented as narrations from a wildlife documentary. But that’s not all there is to this game mode.

Empires of the Undergrowth’s Story Mode actually features a fictional ant species called the Gene Thief as well as your very own Formicarium for them. Here is where the rewards from completing the story missions become useful. The Gene Thief ants are a fast evolving ant species that can have multiple varying characteristics taken from other ant species. And as the player, you get to decide how they’ll evolve by using the resources gained from missions to choose specific traits for evolution. And of course, the Formicarium isn’t just for show as missions dubbed “Gateway Missions” pits your genetically modified ant colony to the test.

As for the story, there isn’t much to go on. Basically, there’s a group of scientists conducting tests and experiments on their newest creation.

Custom Mode

Custom games are pretty much just skirmish. This mode just puts you in a sandbox of your own choosing and lets you go wild. The custom mode features 2 different tabs: the “Skirmish” tab and the “Freeplay” tab. Their only difference is that the Skirmish tab basically functions as a quickstart option while Freeplay lets you customize your sandbox even further. The game plays out according to your own set of rules and settings from victory conditions to even the abundance of food or even enemy critters.

Arcade Mode

The Arcade Mode features a myriad of scenarios and hand crafted games for you to challenge and explore. This mode enhances the replayability of the game by a staggering amount and with planned mod support and community made content, this just might be Empires of the Undergrowth’s well of replayability for years to come. Aside from the unique scenarios that play mostly the same from the main game modes, the Arcade Mode also features scenarios that have completely different gameplay.

One such example is the Battle Arena where you can freely pit groups of species from the undergrowth as they duke it out for survival. Another example of a unique scenario in the arcade mode is the Tug of War which turns the game into an autobattler where you choose the best composition to push the enemy back and destroy their queen. There are many different ways to play in the arcade mode and its catalog will only continue to grow in the future.

CONCLUSION

The team behind Empires of the Undergrowth are all hands on deck towards the 1.0 release of their flagship game. Bringing in a fresh new take to the RTS scene, fans of the genre are sure to find some enjoyment in this game. With focus on handcrafted scenarios, immersive and engaging narration, and semi-accurate representation of the world of the undergrowth, Empires of the Undergrowth offers amazing replay value for RTS gamers and Singleplayer enjoyers alike.

Unfortunately, for those looking for multiplayer then this game probably isn’t for you as the game is being developed with the sole focus on Singleplayer. Empires of the Undergrowth is available in Early Access on Steam, Epic Games, itch.io and GOG and if you’re looking to try the game before you commit to buying it, then there’s also free demos available to download on their website. 

About Slug Disco Studios

Slug Disco Studios is a video games developer and publisher based in the UK.

Slug Disco Studios was founded by 3 friends: Matt, John & Liam, who met back in school and lived together through university. The company was set up to support their dream of producing a video game all about ants. With a combination of freelance educational software contracts, a grant from Creative England, and a kickstarter campaign, they were able to see their first major video game project “Empires of the undergrowth” through to Steam’s Early Access programme in December 2017.

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