Empires of the Undergrowth
Written by Nicholas Espinosa
Illustration by Zion Pascua
Rating (out of 5-stars): 4-stars
Would Recommend?: Yes
Ants. They're small, unassuming, and are generally regarded as pests inside the average suburban household. Most people will either lay some ant bait or call the local exterminator to get rid of them. But, if you're fascinated by ants and are into video games, this might be the ant colony simulator that you’re looking for.
Introducing Empires of the Undergrowth, a game self-published and developed by Slug Disco Studios. The game's campaign features the stereotypical setting of an ant colony being studied in a laboratory. The main story pits the ant colony against an unnamed evil scientist who pushes the colony well beyond his colleague's expectations. However, the campaign scenarios are organic, and are less controlled than the main story challenges.
You explore the lives of three species: black ants, wood ants, and carpenter ants. Each species’ mechanics and gameplay are different from each other. As the main story progresses, so too do the management mechanics and difficulty. The scenarios are straightforward and the win-conditions are completely tied to the mechanic the publishers are trying to teach the player. You start out by playing as the black ants, the most basic of the three species.
After the black ants, you play as the wood ants. In one of the fire ant scenarios you face off against rival colonies which adds a new dynamic to gameplay.
Last but not least, in the later stages of the current campaign, you play as carpenter ants. This introduces a type of ant called Super-Majors, along with plant-collecting, both of which demand new tactics to gameplay. The difficulty curve increases sharply, even at the easiest difficulty, since you now need to adapt to new styles of play built upon the basic mechanics that you learned prior. And the opponents you face are nothing to scoff at either.
The settings of each stage of the campaign are natural and blend seamlessly with the given scenario. It would be accurate to say that the atmosphere scales with the difficulty of the campaign. For example, with the black ants, you're confined to the nest. But when you play with the wood or carpenter ants, you gain access to the above-ground with different levels of elevation in the environment. This affects the paths that your ants can take to get to a given destination. The flora and the opponents you face fit and do not seem out of place.
The opponents progressively become more dynamic. As black ants, you deal with your basic insect invaders such as wood lice and worms. But as carpenter ants, you deal with everything from jumping spiders to praying mantises to other ants.
Overall, the game itself is balanced. The studio developing the game has followed-through on all of its promises so far and are very much invested in the project. The game is currently still in Early Access, and according to their blurb about this status on their Steam page, "“We estimate 18-36 months of further development with community engagement.” It's been twenty-four months since the game was released on Steam.
I personally am looking forward to its final version release potentially at the end of this year. You can purchase Empires of the Undergrowth on Steam for $19.99 plus tax.
The game mechanics and controls are easy to understand
The game difficulties scale fairly well with each new level
The game developers are responsive and are actively working with the community to improve the game with each new patch
Species represented are representative of the major species of the world
Been in early access since 2017
Campaign challenges are easily beaten using a single method
All campaign challenges are king-of-the-hill themed
Features only single-queen campaign/gameplay
No multi-colony gameplay; can't spawn reproductives
Camera movement is restricted; not really streamer-friendly