Last week, I got a chance to play the upcoming Underworld Ascendant, a fantasy RPG set in the same universe as the Ultima series. While it is being produced by a small group of people at Otherside Entertainment, around 14 in total. It definitely has gaming industry pedigree attached. The project is being helmed by Warren Spector, who has produced some hugely influential titles such as Deus Ex, and Paul Neurath, who worked on the original Ultima games.
Underworld Ascendant is set in, you guessed it, the Underworld, where Zeus’s great enemy Typhon has managed to seize control. You are playing as the prophesized hero aiming at liberating the Land of the Dead from Typhon’s rule. So far, so standard. There are various factions vying for control and it is your job to unite them against their common enemy. It’s hard to judge the plot too much, as I only managed to play the first hour or so, but it is encouraging to have developers who worked on Deus Ex and Thief, both games with some of the strongest narratives out there.
Underworld Ascendant’s biggest strength is in the freedom it offers players. Got a locked door in front of you and don’t want to search for the key? Just light it on fire and laugh as you walk over its smoldering remains. Can’t be bothered to sneak past these enemies? Just slap one in the face and lure them onto a wooden bridge, cutting it away from underneath them. Need to find something to weigh a switch down but don’t want to trek back to find a suitable crate? Just plop the dead enemy’s corpse on top and move on.
It is common for fantasy RPGs to give you three distinct playstyles: Mage, Fighter, Rogue. I say ‘distinct’, but it usually boils down to whether you want to smack bad guys with fireballs, axes or arrows. Underworld Ascendant gives you various options to solve your problems, and it is this freedom that I think will really appeal to players upon its full release. Part of what makes this work is its complex skill tree; You are not tied to a class in Underworld Ascendant, but instead level up Rogue, Mage and Fighter skills however you see fit.
This allows you to build a character tailored to you and approach the obstacles accordingly. The games magic system also reflects this freedom, as you build it through acquiring runes. These runes can be combined to create new skills, similar to Magicka but being a bit more abstract. You can find hints as to which runes combine to make which spells, but you can also just experiment with them yourself. The games even address a particular issue I have with most stealth games: It has an unlockable meter which tells you what level of light you are currently standing in. This is such a useful addition to a stealth game, and it is incredible how few games include this feature when Thief was doing it over twenty years ago.
Now, as with any game, Underworld Ascendant is not without its flaws. My main gripe was that all the different environments looked the same. I am struggling to decide if I preferred ‘Dark Foreboding Cave’ or ‘Shadowy Dread Tomb’. I know it is set in the Underworld and so we cannot have levels set in Sunshine Fun Land, but a bit more variation would have better sold the experience to me.
Now, of course, I only played a very limited section of the game, so it is entirely possible the levels become more varied as the game progresses, but I did not see any evidence of this. Additionally, the demo version I played was extremely buggy, with skeletons clipping through doors to the game simply failing to load levels on occasion.
I also could not use a healing spell, and while I enjoyed playing on ‘hardcore’ I do not think that is supposed to reflect the full experience. Now, yes, I played a demo version so I am sure that many of these glitches will have been ironed out upon release, but the game is made on Unity, which is famous for being buggier than a beehive.
Besides those niggling issues, the game seemed very enjoyable and a lot more creative than your usual Elder Scrolls rip-off fantasy RPG. There are a lot of interesting ideas at play and the developers actually seem like they want to deliver a thoughtful, engaging challenge to the player. If you are in the market for a new RPG and are sick of endless fetch quests that only serve to pad out the experience, you should definitely consider Underworld Ascendant.
Underworld Ascendant releases on Windows, Mac, and Linux on November 15, 2018.