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Empires of the Undergrowth
Game Reviews

Empires of the Undergrowth

Real-time strategy with ants, gene stealing, and becoming an undisputed power in the Formicarium.

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Let’s talk ants and about the strange obsession I’ve had with them since my earliest days. This has especially help when it comes to my other obsessions, writing and gaming, as it seems I’m not alone in loving one of the planet’s most eusocial species. I find them absolutely fascinating; did you know leaf cutter ants grow a special fungus they farm and eat? It’s impossible not to be amazed at the destructive power of fire ants when they’re on the move.

Naturally, it should go without saying that Empires of the Undergrowth was right up my alley to satisfy my craving for well…a game focused solely on ants.

You start off with your own colony of ants kept in a formicarium overseen by two scientists studying them. They introduce you to the world of ants and you’re in charge of a “gene stealing queen”, which is used to explain the ability to use multiple species of ants in the same colony. Seven worker ants spawn in with your helpless queen and from there it’s up to you to how the colony will ultimately survive the trials that lay ahead.

Most of your time isn’t spent at home base but controlling colonies out in the wild. These are called challenges, the goals of each varying from killing all living things in the area to upgrading worker and warrior ants overtime. These challenges cover the basics of how to manage your own colony and at the conclusion of each you’ll have a choice of receiving one of three rewards: Royal Jelly for upgrades, more food, or territory to continue expanding.

Managing an ant colony provides a good mixture of real-time strategy and base management I didn’t expect to get so swept up in. You have three sets of tiles to set down that can increase ants’ speed through the tunnels, food storage, or places to grow warrior or worker ants. These tiles can be upgraded by spending “food” the ants gather from killing bugs, harvesting seeds, and gathering from dead bodies. Upgrading them is recommended as they can strengthen your ants, provide more food storage, or enable them to move faster from one chamber to another. You’re encouraged to build these tiles in separate chambers since they can only be upgraded if they’re surrounded by the same tiles or up against a wall.

The attention to detail for each challenge is astounding too with new threats rising up for each wild colony you oversee. My absolute favorite were the beach levels where during the day the colony is tasked with gathering enough food to survive the night. When the tide comes in and night begins to approach the colony has to retreat and deal with the threats like spiders, hermit crabs, and tiger beetles coming into their nest. Even on easy mode these levels were the most intense and there is the constant stress of beating the tide to harvest the bounty of the ocean washing up on the sand.

With so much good stuff though, there are still minor drawbacks that soured my experience a little bit. The only way to acquire Royal Jelly to upgrade your ant colony is to repeat challenges on increasing difficulties. I didn’t mind repeating challenges, but without a break in between it gets boring fast. The formicarium challenges are assaults put forward by two of the scientists to test the strength of your colony. The first one I passed with flying colors, but the second is a sustained onslaught of spiders, tiger beetles, and three different ant colonies combined. I lost track of how many times my heroic queen died trying to defend before I went back to grind out Royal Jelly to purchase upgrades for my colony.

Empires of the Undergrowth is still in the early stages of development, though besides a few crashes and the expected grind, I have to admit it’s stunning. Managing your own colony is addicting and had me up till the small hours of the morning trying to make it through one more round with my colonies. The only drawback is, currently, there’s only around ten hours of gameplay to be had with my favorite critters. Still, the potential is clearly there for more – and better – ant adventures in the future. I’m just glad to see I’m not alone in my obsession.

About the Author: Nia Bothwell