While I'm familiar with the Ultima's place in the video game canon, as well as the history of the immersive sim, Underworld Ascendant has not been on my radar. Computer RPGs are far outside my wheelhouse and any immersive sim fans who read my review of 2017's Prey reimagining will probably never trust my opinion again. Initially, there didn't seem to be anything for me here, but watching studio director Joe Fielder stumble through the game's many mechanics was intriguing, to say the least. Despite all odds, this RPG experience from OtherSide Entertainment and 505 Games seems to be filled with a magical mixture of jank and charm that I simply can't resist.
Underworld Ascendant's look and feel instantly drew me in. This is not your typical skeleton fighting romp. Sure, you'll be fighting various forms of the undead, but they're supplemented by creatures ranging from towering tentacled trees to hovering sunlight giving masses. You might fight by flinging fireballs in other games, but Ascendant challenges you to use a nonoffensive magic system that includes stunning enemies and enhancing your stealth capabilities. Instead of a typical respawn system, players can plant life-giving saplings that port them back into the action quicker. Everything is backed by a layer of deep lore that gives every change a purpose and makes your extradimensional surroundings feel like a real place worth exploring.
The how of the exploring is really what I'm eager to try for myself. Being inspired by the immersive sims of the past, there were very few objects that weren't interactable and useful in the demo I saw. Take the crates strewn around everywhere. You know they're heavy because the game lists their weight, so you can slowly lift them and then hurl them at foes if you're strong enough. If you're more of a magic user, you can levitate a box above an enemies head and inflict the fate of so many cartoon coyotes upon them. You can also stick crates to walls if you acquire a certain sticky sphere, letting you make your own platforms and reach out of the way hideouts.
My favorite part of the demo illustrated another use of this simple cube. One of the demo's loadouts had a spell that grabbed a string of objects from the environment and tried to push them together in a useful way. While at a gap, the spell grabbed four cubes and some other random debris and constructed a makeshift bridge. This could be done reliably, but actually using the bridge became a great challenge. I watched Joe aim the bridge five different ways, and each one gave a different configuration that put the player just out of reach of their destination. Some might find this less than exacting system infuriating, but in a game with so many solutions to a handful of problems, I see the potential in giving players the chance to experiment and comically fail on their way to victory.
This is just a small part of the smorgasbord of mechanics we were shown in our brief demo of Underworld Ascendant's living world. There are slugs that leave behind flammable trails of ooze, spells that let you chain enemies in place or convince them to attack their friends, and even the ability to utilize the bones of the creatures you kill as a weapon of last resort. An immersive sim that lets you wreak this much chaos is something that I simply must be a part of. Even if some of the charming rough edges will be sanded off and replaced with nonsense like "polish" and "balance", I still think I've found an exciting fantasy world that I can't wait to explore.
Underworld: Ascendant was previewed at PAX South 2018 via a nonplayable demo presentation.