When I first came across Empires of the Undergrowth, I knew I had to give it a try. My deep love for base building and management games pulled me in but it’s the nature documentary presentation and micro-scale environments that really made me dig deep into this ant colony managing sim.
You begin in the formicarium, an ant farm watched over by two scientists. Here you safely learn the basics without much in the way of tutorialization. There are tips and information popups, but these don’t do much to show you how to do the things they say they can do. Toying around with the UI reveals a relatively simple control scheme and building options.
You can order ants to dig tunnels and make nursery rooms or food storage. Nurseries can make a different ant types that you can group together and order to gather food, fight or tend to the growing ant brood. Some are better fighters while others are better gatherers. Empires of the Undergrowth doesn’t restrict ants to the job they are best suited to. In combat the game mostly favors numbers over any sort of strategy. However, there seems to be plans in development for more in-depth ways to interact with your ants and the world around them.
From the formicarium the player can enter the game’s challenge stages, each with their own unique settings and objectives to overcome. One stage had me building up my colony while fending off enemy ants bent on kidnapping my precious ant babies. Another stage had my ants fighting off hermit crabs and wolf spiders while escaping the deadly beach tides and gathering enough food to survive the harrowing nights. These modes are challenging but I never felt the game was unfairly dooming my ants by sending in too many enemies or not giving enough food.
A Fitting Presentation
The presentation comes across as a sort of nature documentary. A narrator introduces each new enemy by their scientific and laymen names and describes what sort of danger they pose for your ants. You learn how to deal with each new enemy type and also a few real-world facts. This game is by no means an educational game but I’m delighted by how fitting the nature documentary-esque presentation is in a game about building an ant colony. If you’re like me and grew up on lazy weekends with programs like Animal Planet or The Discovery Channel this will spark that bit of nostalgia in you, guaranteed. It’s also the best way to get your SimAnt fix on modern systems.
A Bit of a Silly Side
Each challenge stage rewards victory with resources for your formicarium colony. You gain more by tackling harder difficulties and can pick a resource to get more of as an added bonus. At first I didn’t understand why the formicarium colony needed resources. It seemed free of danger and only focused on expanding. However, the formicarium has its own challenges that the scientists set in motion. Unlike challenge stages, the formicarium challenges have no difficulty settings. You have to rely on the resources gained through the challenge stages to build up the formicarium colony in preparation for whatever the scientists throw at you. I won’t spoil what they have in store but these parts are handled in a much more comedic way than the challenge stages and serve as a good contrast to the more serious narration style.
Once you beat every stage and keep the scientists’ shenanigans at bay you can replay challenge stages outside of the formicarium. Within the formicarium players can spawn enemies to fight, ranging from other types of ants to wolf spiders. But fret not, my fellow arachnophobes, because Empires of the Undergrowth has a handy arachnophobia mode just for you! Does it completely remove the spiders? Does it replace them with another type of enemy? No, but it does outfit them in a dapper top hat. The dashing spiders still dash right into your ant colony and wreak havoc, but at least it’s under the guise of civility. In all seriousness, I’m unsure that simply adding a top hat to the spiders will ease any sort of arachnophobic response, but it gave me quite the laugh when I discovered the option.
A Strong Start and a Hopeful Future
To my surprise and delight the only bugs I encountered in EoU were the intended ants, beetles, and spiders. I’m wary of early access titles. Encountering one that is so well put together is refreshing. I deeply enjoyed both the serious and lighthearted aspects of Empires of the Undergrowth and the core gameplay is already satisfying.
There’s some improvement needed. A clear tutorial would help new players get comfortable with the mechanics quicker. Even I find them helpful in RTS games when I want to get a quick grasp on the controls. Moreover, it would be great if combat was a little more involved. For example, I would love to be able to maneuver ants in different defensive and offensive formations. A more varied selection of ant and enemy types would go a long way in making combat more engaging. I hope that quality work continues on Empires of the Undergrowth, there’s already a very strong base for an enjoyable RTS game.
Should You Buy It?
As an early access title I withhold any numerical score. However I strongly urge you to give Empires of the Undergrowth a try if you enjoy RTS games, are interested in micro-scale perspectives, or simply want a touch of SimAnt nostalgia.