A short while ago, I had the opportunity to play Underworld Ascendant, a new RPG made by OtherSide Entertainment. It was exciting for me, as several of the creators of one of my favourite games, Deus Ex, were working on it. In my preview, I was pretty positive overall, appreciating OtherSide’s aspirations in making a proper old style RPG. Having played the full release, however, I must say that I am very disappointed in its execution.

I am getting a bit ahead of myself, so let’s begin by saying what the Hell Underworld Ascendant is all about. Underworld Ascendant is the latest addition to the Ultima series, a classic franchise of RPGs that stretch back further than the invention of the wheel. Specifically, Underworld Ascendant is a sequel to Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds from the mythic era of 1993. You do not need to have played the rest of the series, however, as the game acts as a standalone title.

You play a prophesied hero who has appeared in the Underworld at a perilous time. Zeus’s great enemy Typhon has emerged, and seeks to conquer the Underworld before moving on to the rest of reality. The denizens of Hades just can’t seem to work well together, so it is your job to unite them and take out Typhon together.

We start to see the first issues emerging around here. Simply put, the plot is pretty standard and minimal, which is quite an issue in the story driven RPG genre. Compared to Deus Ex, which was a brilliantly crafted blend of conspiracy theories and tight storytelling, Underworld Ascendant really has nothing going on at all. Typhon is about as generic a villain as you can get, simply wanting to conquer the universe because…. err… he wants to? Every so often, Typhon just starts talking to you with the usual video game villain stock phrasebook in hand. “You will never defeat me, Ascendant!”, he booms with the regularity of  a particularly uninteresting clock. Even Bethesda games have more compelling plots than this. Now, please allow me to go drink some antifreeze for committing the cardinal sin of complimenting Bethesda.

Underworld Ascendant Screenshot

Story was not really very high on the list of Otherside’s priorities, so what was? Gameplay, of course, and there are quite a lot of ideas that I like on display here. Firstly, the actual RPG elements are really well implemented. In most RPGs, you have to decide whether you want to be a Warrior, Mage or Rogue at the outset, as spending any experience in something other than your chosen class means you will not be able to unlock the top tier abilities.

This is not so in Underworld Ascendant, as the game encourages you to unlock abilities in whatever fashion you want. Want to be a sneaky guy that sets people on fire occasionally? Go for it. Want to be a fighter that likes to hide in dark corners when he gets bored of hacking heads off? It’s up to you. This type of freedom often feels lacking in most mainstream RPGs these days, which is unfortunate as that is really the point of the genre.

Part of what allows this open approach is the level design. Each map is huge and sprawling, allowing for you to complete objectives in a large number of ways. You can choose the route that has loads of enemies, search for a key for a locked door, or you can explore until you find a hidden path to your goal. It reminds me of the first two Thief titles (and it does share some of the same developers), which offered no end of flexibility and freedom in its level design.

What Thief did have which Underworld Ascendant lacks, however, are maps that you actually want to explore and immerse yourself in. The Underworld just looks so bloody boring and depressing, and once you have seen one dark decaying cave, you really have seen them all. I understand that Hades should not look like a holiday camp (other than Butlins I suppose), but that doesn’t mean everything should look the same. Part of the issue is that the game is designed on Unity, which nearly always looks uglier than Andrew Lloyd Webber after a chimpanzee attack.  

Underworld Ascendant Screenshot

This ugliness extends to the other characters that inhabit the world. The main NPCs that you bump into are a race of sentient lizard people, who always look ridiculous as their big flappy block mouths attempt to deliver dialogue. Whenever they tried to speak to me, I would feel my immersion shatter. If you can’t animate the mouth movements well, just don’t bother. You never see anyone try to speak properly in Dark Souls, and literally, nobody cares.

When your world is populated by people you do not want to talk to, giving you dialogue about a story that really isn’t that interesting, it doesn’t motivate the player to finish the game. Why should I give a shit if the Underworld is taken over? It looks like an awful place full of uncanny valley wankers anyway. Because they’ll conquer my world too? Go for it, he can’t be worse than our current leaders anyway. Typhon #2020.

Additionally, the sense of freedom the game offers comes back to bite it in the arse sometimes as well. One feature that is quite fun is that anything wooden can be set on fire, including locked doors. However, that then raises the question of why I should ever bother locking for a key, when fire is really easy to see and is everywhere in the naturally gloomy Underworld. In Deus Ex, doors could also be destroyed, but you either had to use explosives, which would alert enemies everywhere, or level up your melee ability to smash it down, which rewarded you for levelling up. Here, you can use fire from the get go, so it seems rather pointless to ever search for keys. There are some doors you cannot burn down, but that then makes the door burning function unnecessary. Yes, I am bitching about doors in a game, and yes I am a games journalist. Shut up.

Now, for the final nail I want to drive through this flammable coffin. You should never make a full release RPG on Unity. It is a buggy mess that has never heard of the word ‘optimisation’. My PC is pretty damn good. I can run a lot of recent releases on ultra high graphics without any slow-down at all. I am aware that I am alerting you all to my tiny penis in bragging about this, but I am getting to a point: Underworld Ascendant, a game that would have looked like arse if it were released ten years ago, makes my computer chug harder than George Stephenson’s Rocket.

Underworld Ascendant Screenshot

The framerate drops all the bloody time, to the extent that I regularly had to switch it off and whack on Tekken 7 on high just to remind myself that my computer was a sound investment. It’s honestly one of the worst optimized games I have ever played on PC, and I was stupid enough to by Grand Theft Auto IV on Steam. It absolutely soured my view on Underworld Ascendant, and why shouldn’t it? It would be easy for me to say “all my Deus Ex and Thief heroes aren’t to blame, it’s that big meany Unity!”, but honestly, they should have known better.

Warren Spector and the others are industry veterans with some amazing titles under their collective belt, yet they decided to use Unity for a big game like this. Everyone knows it sucks for Christ’s sake. Babies have been known to say “Unity is a shitty engine and nobody but amateur developers should use it” as their first fully formed sentence. Even my nan knows that Unity is a terrible tool for big releases, and she’s dead.

So, overall I would say that Underworld Ascendant is a big ol‘ mess. It’s a real shame because I think that OtherSide had a lot of good intentions. I too long for the days of classic RPGs, where you actually could play how you wanted, and freedom and exploration were rewarded with more than just useless gold coins and pointless fake houses. I also love enormous maps with multiple approaches to complete objectives.

Sadly, the execution just leaves a Hell of a lot to be desired. Better luck next time, OtherSide Entertainment. I know I have been very mean to you throughout this review, but I honestly hope you carry on and make something new and innovative for us soon. Just don’t use Unity, please. If money’s an issue, just make an old-school isometric game with 90s graphics. If people love retro stuff enough to buy cassette tapes ‘for the sound’, you can convince them to do anything.  

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