Code provided with many thanks to Hooded Horse.
Ants in Your Game
When I was a youngling, I actually had one of those mini ant farms, and it was a fascinating experience. Watching the ants start from the top and then gradually burrow into a complex system of tunnels. In my young mind, I wondered, what if someone turned this into a video game? Fast forward 30 years, and Slug Disco Studio came up with an RTS (Real Time Strategy) called Empires of the Undergrowth to make younger (and older) me very happy indeed.
The game has actually been in Early Access since 2017. That’s quite a long time, but certainly, not the longest I have come across. It recently received a big update, so I can’t comment on the earlier version. What I will say is if you like creepy crawlies, this is well worth checking out, even if you’re not the biggest RTS fan.
The general premise of the game is you run a colony of ants. A queen is in the centre of your nest, and you need to send out the ant troops to do your ant bidding. This includes digging tunnels, finding food, growing your colony and dispatching any nasty insects that try to crawl their way into your territory. The game can take place in underground burrows, but you can also take your ants to the surface to risk the dangers above, opening up more rewards but greater risks as you leave your Queen more vulnerable.
Usually, I am very intimidated by RTS games. There’s often a lot to learn and mechanics to take on, making it tough to penetrate if you’re new. But Empires of the Undergrowth has a very helpful tutorial, which goes through the game’s mechanics step by step in a simple and concise manner that even an RTS novice should find a comfortable starting point. Being on a PC and an RTS, mouse, and keyboard generally is the most accessible way to play the game. However, the option to play with a controller is there, as is a Steam Deck option if you are one of the lucky folks with one of those (if you do, I’m jealous).
Mouse and Keyboard
Using a mouse and keyboard, I found it comfortable to select tunnels to dig out and group ant parties together into numbered slots at the bottom of the screen to select and control where you want them to go easily.
Generally speaking, if you send an army of ants in a desired direction, they will collect food and attack enemies automatically. But if you are a more experienced RTS fan, there are extra options for you to tinker with to have extra control. Such as having the ants in a group only perform a specific task without being distracted by anything else. You have full control of the hive mind.
The game’s graphics are impressive; you really feel immersed in your ant colony. Ants will scurry around with their antenna waving, just like the real thing. Although it’s not just ants you’ll see, you encounter all sorts of creepy crawlies like woodlice, spiders and sometimes even much larger threats like frogs.
The best design feature is the narrator, who talks over your actions, turning the game into somewhat of a documentary. When you encounter new enemies, the narrator will describe the species and even add dialogue when you finally win over them. It adds a nice educational flavour to the experience, possibly reinventing the documentary formula as we know it. The soundtrack adds further immersion to this documentary feeling adding a layer of tension as you explore the unknown world around you.
There are several features to dive into. The main feature is the campaign story mode. Here you create your own colony choosing its name and colour. You start with just a queen and a few workers in a new nest. I made a mistake here of jumping straight into a mission my workers were clearly under-equipped for and died instantly.
What you’re supposed to do is take on these side missions, which transport you to a new ant colony with some small objectives to complete. This may be building your army up to a certain size or eliminating all the enemies in an area. Once complete, you are then awarded resources which you return to your main colony. One of these resources is jelly, which is used to permanently upgrade your ants and unlock new ant minions, which will help you finish the first mission.
If you’re looking for a more casual ant experience, you can choose the difficulty of each individual mission. You can save it anytime in your created colony sections. However, you can’t save during missions, which is a bit of a pain since many take over thirty minutes to finish. Not ideal if you need to hop off because a small person needs your much-needed attention, or he’ll rip up your favourite book again.
As well as story mode, you also have a battle mode. Here you can have various insects you have encountered fight against each other. Then there is a free-play mode that lets you play various standalone missions. This was actually where I ended up spending most of my time during this preview because I wasn’t good at the campaign.
Empires of the Undergrowth left a very positive first impression on me. Its documentary design lured me in, but its accessible gameplay kept me hooked. Even when I made mistakes, which was often, I was compelled to try again and learn from them thanks to the easy-to-use controls.
The game is absolutely exploding with content, even at this Early Access stage. Although it has been some time in development, the developers release regular updates on the Steam page. So it’s clearly well-supported. Additionally, if you would like to support the developers in their quest for ant RTS greatness, be sure to check it out on Steam or at least wishlist it. Empires of the Undergrowth is easily the best game I’ve played featuring ants. Granted, the last game I remember playing as an ant was Bugs Life on PSone, but this is still ant-tastic.
Be sure to check out the free demo on Steam and see what you think.