At the very beginning of 2018, I discovered Underworld Ascendant at PAX South. At the time, the team just had a small demo that threw me into the thick of things. Even so, I fell in love with the ambition on display. Games have come so far in so many ways, but there’s something missing. So few of them really invite the player to explore a real place. The dungeons of Underworld Ascendant aren’t some theme park attraction—they exist regardless of your intentions. I had to play more, and the fine folks at Otherside Entertainment were kind enough to invite me to their office to do just that. With just weeks away from the final release, I saw a project that’s more than ready for the spotlight.
As a brief refresher, Underworld Ascendant is a return to the origins of the Immersive Sim. Funded by almost 14,000 players in 2015, it’s looking to bring the sensibility of Ultima Underworld to the modern day. You’ll dive into an expansive system of dungeons, fight off skeletons, read graffiti left by fellow travelers, and work towards an ultimate encounter. As far as whether the game achieves its goals, I can say that this certainly feels like a PC-first RPG experience. Thankfully, it’s not limited by those constraints, just respectful of them.
The most notable change from my previous demos is that I was able to sample Underworld Ascendant‘s tutorial. This is especially vital in immersive sims, a genre where experimentation always trumps explanation. In this vein, Underworld guides you through a few scenarios with obvious solutions, but it doesn’t spell anything out for you. The player has to figure out what’s going on, and it’s a great way to acclimate those who are more used to hand-holding experiences. Even though this is my third time descending into the depths, the tutorial still had a few things to teach me. After finally getting a grip on the basics, I felt more than capable of jumping into later levels.
I hope that feeling carries through to the final product. I’m no expert at these sorts of games, just an interested participant. Still, I’m seemingly not in the target demographic for Underworld Ascendant. As I spoke with Warren Spector, Tim Stellmach and several others at the studio, one strong feeling came through. This is a game designed for veterans first and foremost. That might make sense if you consider the game’s Kickstarter origins, but I’ve found that its appeal could be wider.
For such a small team, Otherside has crafted a game full of systems that appeal to a completionist. Take the magic system, which has you collecting runes and mixing them to discover powerful spells. Not only does the game not tell you what spells are possible up front, but some simply only exist if you experiment. You just don’t know if your new combo will summon a mercenary that will attack you or fling a crate forward at high speeds. The fact that you get to learn in real time what power you’re unleashing leads to some genuinely hilarious moments. Best of all, they’re all an intended part of the experience, not an unexpected result of a janky open world.
Of course, that entire system of collecting runes and magic spells is completely optional. You could pump all your upgrades into melee weapons, gaining parkour powers and the strength to lift things on your own. You can also go the classic Looking Glass Studios route of stealth, armed with a bow and arrow, a knife, and light footsteps. Or, you can play around in the upgrade tree and mix and match, becoming a jack of all trades. It’s all the character choices you’d expect from a modern game, but each choice feels like it actually matters. These upgrades aren’t just minor stat boosts; they open pathways and give you new options. This should just be how it is normally, but it ends up as a refreshing contrast to the current landscape.
Other notable upgrades included the hub world, which housed a shop to buy and trade loot and a mission board. It seems that you’ll be going in and out of the same levels frequently with different objectives. This could become repetitive if not done right, but it’s too early to tell. At least there seems to be a wide variety of everything else, from the enemies you encounter to the different items to fiddle with. The brief dialogues and NPC interactions I found were full of character, but it didn’t seem like Underworld would be full of them. Traversing a dungeon is a lonely occupation, and that’s fine. A solitary mind is much more likely to concoct the kind of chaos that makes this game shine.
As we head towards Underworld Ascendant‘s launch, it won’t be long before we see the final product in action. I’m eager to try the game with a controller for the first time. Mapping something of this complexity to dual joysticks is always an interesting endeavor. Since the game comes to consoles early next year, I’m also curious about its reception.
Did Dishonored and Prey ready the typical Xbox user for the deep end of 0451? Even if the answer is no, I do hope that Underworld Ascendant finds a home among those outside the normal niche. It’s a window into a different style of game design, one that feels vital if we ever want to get out of the open world rut.
TechRaptor previewed Underworld Ascendant on PC at the Otherside Entertainment offices in Boston. Travel and accommodations were provided by 505 Games. The game is coming to consoles early in 2019.More About This Game