Like Dig Dug had a baby with Terraria
It’d be easy to overlook Aground based on its visuals alone. The muted color palette in the starting areas coupled with the shrunk-down, pixelated characters doesn’t make a great first impression. The earth underneath that you’ll eventually dig into is an unsurprisingly earthy color that becomes really dull the deeper you go. But don’t let that fool you; underneath the hood is a mining, crafting, and dungeon crawling exploration game that will win you over if given the chance.
Aground, at its core, is a game of digging, resource accumulation, and structure building. Digging underground is as simple as pressing the down button, and your little guy will cut into the soil one block at a time. Whereas Minecraft is in a 3D space and Terraria has the entire experience as a 2D side scroller, Aground splits the difference by having the above ground segments be side scrolling with digging almost akin to Dig Dug. Digging uses up stamina that has to be replenished either by eating foods or going to sleep in your hut. Underneath the ground exist various materials (coal, ore, gold, quartz, and titanium, for example) to pull to the surface, and the act of digging itself slowly grew on me as a calming, meditative experience.
What do you do with those materials? Crafting, of course, but Aground does something really smart by not only including a story but using it as a vehicle to dole out different missions along the way. While I love Minecraft for its sandbox and seemingly limitless build options, the scale of the world and almost requiring a guide for how to build things can be daunting. The bread-crumbing of missions that have you seeking out new resources to make buildings, farmland, docks, and equipment in Aground acts as a great checkpoint for progress. Eventually you’ll be making minecarts to dig deeper and quicker, developing workshops to build more durable tools, and constructing a thriving community above ground.
That land development and maintenance quickly becomes the driving force for why you’re collecting resources. Missions from villagers will have you developing farmland, pig pens, barns, and orchards that passively produce food and crops that can be used either as ingredients to cook into a meal, or directly as restorative items for health and stamina. You’ll build a space for smelting metals. Then you’ll help bring about a town market and docks to explore off the island you start on. Once you get your sea legs and start exploring other communities, the world continually feels so much bigger, imbuing the experience with a sense of wonder: What would I encounter next?
There are some nagging issues I can’t let go without mentioning. For one, the movement speed is painfully slow. While this isn’t a problem at the start, as you explore deeper into the ground or across large expanses of the world, it becomes more grating that no run button exists. Then there’s the combat, something which mostly feels like a nuisance that distracts from the digging around, the game’s bread and butter. It continued being a chore until I unlocked familiars—a pet companion that can fight on your behalf—but you don’t gain those until later on. Where the town development feels like a nice break from digging, battling monsters underground just bogs down the spelunking I'd been enjoying.
Aground surprised me with how much I kept wanting to get back to it the more I played. It won’t win any awards for its visuals and could certainly do well by limiting battling. That said, it hit the mark with tranquil digging, incentivizing crafting with small goals in its missions, and gradually pushing you along to explore the wider world around your starting grounds. If you like your crafting but want a guiding hand for your experience, Aground is a good place to start.