What was it like to play Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss? Beyond its myriad technical achievements, the world of the Abyss was a place that felt alive. Banished for a crime you didn’t commit, you explored a nonlinear underground maze, anxious of what hid in the dark. You had to eat and sleep, not forgetting to put out your torch if you wanted to conserve it. You interacted with goblins, dwarves, lizardmen—the latter with their own language that you could learn. At a certain point, you could open a portcullis by flipping a switch with a pole through the grating. Everything was interconnected. Items you pick up in the first levels might be essential in later levels. There was a coherent internal logic to even minor details, and every system was cohesive. Underworld Ascendant is the exact opposite in every way.
With the vaguest of introductions, you appear in an unrecognizable version of the Abyss, welcomed by a spirit called Cabirus. Sir Cabirus was the founder of the underground human colony in Ultima Underworld, but he never actually appeared in it. The character who guides you as a disembodied voice throughout Ascendant is stiff and impersonal. There’s nothing to actually motivate you to find the Abyssal Keys to defeat the Big Bad called Typhon. The whole premise is artificial, dull, archaic. In Ultima Underworld, you had a motivation grounded in your character that you could see and customize to some degree. There’s no proper roleplaying in Ascendant. Your character is just a faceless, lifeless husk with some skills tacked on.
There is a character creation prelude of sorts where you choose a voice and the bulk of your arms. Except that the player character never actually speaks, they only grunt and moan when lifting heavy objects. What does that say about the game? It implies that there were plans to include dialogue with the player character's voice. The impression is that Ascendant is unfinished as a product and as a game. This becomes obvious as a plethora of broken features, glitches, and bugs plague any enjoyment you could try to derive from it.
After a couple of tutorial levels (complete with eye-rolling hints from Cabirus), you arrive at Marcaul. It's the "city" of the Saurians. I can’t express how much I hate everything about this race and its design. The lizardmen in Underworld were fascinating, no matter how primitive their AI and animation. The Saurians look like cheap plastic dinosaurs and sound like stoned new age hippies. There’s nothing interesting about the race; it’s all predictable and vapid. They repeat their lines over and over until you feel like attacking them, but of course, you can’t do that. You can only listen and rage at the utter ineptitude of it.
Still, you go on and get to the Midnight Forum where you meet Aelita, the trying-to-be-funny junk retailer. Before we get into the actual quest design, let’s talk about the inventory and trade interface. I’ve only seen this level of ugliness in Steam Direct shovelware. It looks like every single item and its icon is a placeholder made in a few minutes, then tacked onto the UI at the last minute before release. You could easily open Paint and make something that looks better. There isn’t even a “paper doll” to equip your character, it’s just a floating set of helmet, boots, etc. The UI feels unresponsive most of the time, with a delay before you equip or remove an item.
The bounty board is a special kind of stupid. The quests, if you can really call them that, are so meaningless that you can abandon them at any time. In fact, they probably added the Abandon Quest menu option because you can't complete many of them. I had to abandon at least five myself because of bugs. Not that the quests have any kind of complexity or anything interesting that causes these bugs. Samples include “Force the Skeleton Warriors out,” “recover a set of Ripper Hide Armor,” “retrieve a Throwing Axe.” They go on and on ad nauseam. Still, maybe there's a puzzle when you finally retrieve one of the Abyssal Keys? Nope, it’s just floating in a room or corner. Fetch it like a dog.
The main quest expects you to get seven of those keys so you can get to Typhon. You also must gain favor with three factions who never actually appear. The Deep Elves, the Expedition, and the Shamblers feature only as shoddy masks on the bounty board. Sometimes the Saurians will tell you about them, but the lore is as vacuous as their other lines. They might have been kind of interesting if we had a chance to interact with them and understand their place in the Abyss. Nope, can’t have that.
The fundamental problem with the quest design is that the gameplay foundation is flawed with obtuse, out of touch design choices. Even if they implemented some cool puzzles in the quests, it wouldn’t work because the skills are mostly pointless. When I started the game I was hoping to go on a stealth run. After the first couple of quests, I realized there was no point to it. The stealth system is broken and the skills just don't work as expected. On top of that, there’s no worthwhile reward for accomplishing a perfectionist stealth run as you could in something like Dishonored. Sure, there are stats at the end of every quest, supposed to reward your ingenuity like a carrot on a stick. A high combination of stealth, magic, and combat yields more skill points, but most of the skills are defective. It's a catch-22.
The skill trees branch into Fighter, Magic, and Stealth. You can mix them up, but there’s no cohesion or harmony between them. Everything feels underwhelming, poorly playtested, and potentially buggy. At first, I thought I’d have fun with the Wall Run ability, but then the frame rate became a slideshow in the final stages, I was basically getting glued to the walls instead. I tried to have some fun with the rune combination system, only to keep dying for no reason when I tried to teleport over a ledge. The more I realize about Underworld Ascendant's broken systems, the less I want to keep playing.
At first, the physics-based antics feel like they might develop some actual potential later in the game. By the end, the mechanics feel superficial and poorly explored. It’s a very basic use of physics that might have been novel in an early 2000s game. In 2018, flinging around these cheap props looks embarrassing. If the systems and skills worked properly, the use of physics could have been more polished. As it stands, it does a disservice to the game as a useless feature.
Apart from forcing you to revisit the same seven levels over and over, Ascendant has the messiest level design I’ve ever seen, especially in vertical terms. In the later stages there’s a skill that allows you to jump higher and double-jump so you can eventually get to higher places you couldn’t at first. Except that those places rarely have anything worthwhile—always the same useless props and crates. It just doesn’t reward exploration, quite the opposite. You think: “Hey, maybe this path will lead to something interesting. I see those shapes out there, let’s check that out.” There’s nothing; it’s just a dead-end that seems to laugh at you.
I haven’t even mentioned issues like the floating, muddy movement, the ankle-deep water sliding, the unnecessary save system, the ugly and pointless loot chests, the brain-dead AI, the frequent noclip edges and glitches, and so on. There are so many small technical issues that avalanche into the worst user experience I’ve ever had in almost thirty years of gaming. It seems custom designed to irritate the player at every point. The performance gets worse in the later stages because Typhon creates these fissures in the levels that puff out fire every few seconds. The more these multiply, the more the game becomes a slideshow. At this point, I was baying for blood.
There are many buggy games that I still want to give a chance to, knowing there can be decent games under the bugs and the issues. Some of those games are buggy because of ambitious and complex design. I don't think that's the case with Ascendant. The shallowness of its base design waters down whatever complexity its systems might have. Either way, I will never give it another chance. It's hands down one of the worst games I have ever played. Even if it worked flawlessly, it would still be an extremely mediocre game that I’d tell everyone to avoid. Playing it and writing this review actually left me kind of depressed for a few days. It’s because of games like this that I often despise the games industry, no matter how much I love the medium.
Even if you’ve never played Ultima Underworld and you think you might like Ascendant, there are so many better games out there that are more deserving of your time and money. Wait for Monomyth, which is poised to be a true descendant of Ultima Underworld as well as King’s Field. The Legend of Grimrock series is amazing, though they’re more inspired by Dungeon Master than by Ultima. Hell, Arx Fatalis is an infinitely better game than Ascendant, and it’s 16 years old. You don’t want Underworld Ascendant, even if you can get it for free or a big discount.
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss was first and foremost an amazing game before it became an Immersive Sim™. Ascendant was built on the hallowed ground of great games that followed in the wake of Underworld, but it is entirely unworthy of the mantle. This is not an Underworld game, it’s not an immersive sim, and it’s not even remotely the game that was promised during its Kickstarter campaign. It's an insulting, half-done, hollow jumble of pointlessness that deserves to be pilloried as the ultimate example of how awful a crowdfunded game can get.
Even if you can get past the countless technical issues, Underworld Ascendant is a poorly designed abomination that ruins the Underworld series even to those who've never heard of it. This is the final nail in the Immersive Sim™ coffin. Bury it and salt the earth.
- The Illusion of Potential
- Bugs, Glitches, Broken Features
- Ugly Art Style and UI
- Muddy Movement
- Ridiculous Quests
- Messy Level Design
- Mostly Pointless Skills
- Awful Performance
- Idiotic Save System