The Ultima Underworld series is often talked about as one of the most influential in gaming. Dishonored, Bioshock, and Prey (at least the 2017 reboot), are just a few names that owe a debt to these ancient titles. Looking for a breakdown of the rest of the Ultima Underworld series? Then look no further than my column here on Topless Robot. Or, check out the essay in video form on the 2 Headed Hero channel.
Today, I’ll be taking the temperature of the much anticipated follow-up to Ultima Underworld I and II, Underworld Ascendant. To be honest, I’ve been following this game ever since its announcement four years ago. But can Ascendant help the Underworld series retake the immersive sim crown?
Underworld Ascendant is shaping up to be a pretty lengthy and involved game. I haven’t finished it yet. In this state, I’m not sure I can. So, consider this more of an impressions video designed to show you the game’s broader strokes. Don’t get me wrong – It’s not all negatives, and there’s some fun core gameplay, but there’s still a ton of problems. Let’s answer the important question: Is it worth buying right now?
Underworld Ascendant: Unveiled
Underworld Ascendant was announced in July of 2014, and successfully Kickstarted back in 2015. Having been burned by half-baked crowdfunding campaigns before, I optimistically plonked down a small chunk of change in order to get a key at release. As the game is being developed by Otherside Entertainment, a small company stocked with series veterans like Paul Neurath and Warren Spector, confidence was high that Ascendant would be a success. There was – and still is – a large amount of open communication between the team and the gamers that support it. The Discord channel and Steam pages for the game are quite lively.
Gaming has come quite a ways since Ultima Underworld II.
Boldly, Underworld Ascendant also makes the claim to be the sequel to the much-beloved Ultima Underworld series. The influences here are clear. From the start, players take on the title of Ascendant and are thrust into the dark underground realm of the Stygian Abyss. The goal? Defeating Typhon – the Father of Monsters. The Ascendant must track down seven abyssal keys in order to unlock the pathway to Typhon’s realm. Doing so requires currying the cooperation of three factions: the contemplative and mushroom-like Shamblers, the shadowy Dark Elf survivors, and the hardy Dwarven Expedition. Only then can the Ascendant forge the final Sun Key and face Typhon.
An Ugly Start
I hate to admit it, but Underworld Ascendant looked simply AWFUL when I first booted up the game. After puzzling around for a minute, I figured out that the game defaulted to Very Low detail.
Yikes. There’s also a ton of motion blur by default – this screenshot is Very Low quality settings, unedited.
Bumping this up to 1080p Ultra made quite a difference, of course. Some of the more detailed areas tended to temporarily tank my frame rate, and I did experience the occasional hitching.
Visually, Underworld Ascendant is a game that tries to play to its strengths with a particular art style. The focus lies more on bold, detailed characters. I have to admit, these character and enemy designs are really, really cool and creative. The Saurians have reptilian markings and detailed scales. The eyes of the skeletons glow with a cold light – except for the ones that wander about headless. The warped, treelike Rippers sprout sensory cilia from knots and holes in their trunks, sniffing around for nearby prey. Still, it’s a shame that animations can often be broken. Characters often get stuck in environments, which results in a little dance off. Some enemies, like the floating brain creatures and the animus, appear to be lacking death animations altogether and just disappear when killed.
Agh, the brain-beast strikes again!
The environments focus on effective use of colors and heavy contrast between light and shadow, rather than realism. This works fairly well, to a point – but the game looks dated. This is most apparent in the Ascendant’s hand animations. There were also numerous spots with broken geometry and strange draw-in bugs. Things that made me go “hmmm”.
An Audio Grab Bag
The audio is a mixed bag as well. Voice lines can sometimes bounce between sounding far away or directly in your ear holes. There were a few audio stutters when levels were loading, and strange discrepancies involving the proximity of enemies and items in the world – more than once, I could hear enemy sounds clearly through stone walls as if they were right on top of me.
Underworld Ascendant’s soundtrack is awesome – when it’s there. A really great, creepy rework of the old Ultima Underworld exploration theme graces the title screen. Since I just recently completed both of the old games, this really pumped me up! It’s a shame that the rest of the music is a series of understated atmospheric tracks.
Spooky Gods and Jaw-Flapping Dinosaurs
Let’s make a deal!
On the flipside, the voice acting is quite good overall – The ghost of Cabirus and the booming voice of Typhon are both pretty convincing, and suitably atmospheric. Your immediate allies, the lizard-like Saurians, are also voiced pretty well, but man, oh man – the lip syncing. The first time I watched one of them flap their dino-jaws around in a crooked parody of speech was simply comedy gold.
Gameplay: Stealing Lessons From Thief
For my gaming dollar, I can easily overlook some rough edges. The game has plenty, but for the moment I’m going to focus on the core gameplay. Underworld Ascendant claims to be a successor to Ultima Underworld I and II. To be sure, the aesthetics and references to the old games are here. The silver sapling once again functions as your respawn point. The runic magic system returns in a streamlined form. Old locations and characters resurface here. However, the core gameplay in Underworld Ascendant is much, much closer to a later Looking Glass Studios series: Thief.
No. Not you, Thief 2014. Just… go home.
A closer look reveals a ton of Thief series hallmarks. Water arrows and stealth are really important. Treasures and hidden objects are found throughout the missions. One-on-one combat is difficult but survivable. Being outnumbered is usually lethal. Like Thief, Underworld Ascendant goes for a mission-based structure, with Marcaul as its central hub – abandoning the open world of its predecessors. These missions themselves are intertwined loops dotted with points of interest and enemies – a design that also calls back to the Thief series. However, many of the contracts also contain random elements and unguided object hunts. These rely on sheer luck more often than not, and can result in some overly lengthy searches.
Marcaul – a bird’s eye view.
Stumbling Through the Stygian Abyss
Overall, the game’s sensation of movement feels as if your face is lurching a little bit ahead before the rest of your body catches up. First person movement is somewhat unpolished. I found myself getting caught up on stairs and small objects occasionally. Vaulting over ledges and fences seems to work pretty well, but there’s no accompanying animation or other feedback for this. Swimming is a big problem. The Ascendant moves slowly in the water, and it is really hard to get out in places where it seems this should be simple, like slopes and stairs.
I switched to a controller, but controller support also feels pretty tacked on. I found myself accidentally starting video recordings at first due to the fact that “Y” was bound to both “jump” and “start recording” by default. Only basic Xinput support seems to be present, so be prepared to mess around with the control scheme if couch play is your thing.
The user interface in Underworld Ascendant is functional, but feels a bit dated. There’s an inventory quickbar, as you would have in an earlier Elder Scrolls game or survival title. A radial menu might have made more sense. (I mean, the magic system uses one!) The quickbar just seems like a strange choice.
Physics need some tuning here. You can chuck small objects with relative ease, but dragging around crates and barrels is a little wonky. Whipping a bottle of acid at an enemy, dropping a chandelier on their heads, or tossing a torch at a wooden barrier and watching it go up in smoke is pretty satisfying though. The game makes a serial arsonist out of the Ascendant from the get-go, and using the environment as a weapon is actually a lot of fun.
R.I.P. my frame rate.
Combat itself takes the form of magic, ranged, and melee. Players can choose to bushwhack enemies with sneak attacks fairly easily, and using the bow or offensive magic is straightforward. The melee is a simple paper-rock-scissors situation with a quick attack, strong attack, and block. I believe it works like this: Blocks interrupt quick attacks. Quick attacks interrupt strong attacks. Strong attacks break blocks, but are easy to dodge. This generally feels pretty simple and consistent. I really liked the way that a single enemy can feel like a challenge, and Underworld Ascendant goes out of its way to encourage players against direct confrontation. Stealth, trickery, and avoidance are the best policies here, and creativity in dispatching foes is highly rewarded – giving additional feats to cash in.
Progression-wise, there’s a lot of options on offer in Underworld Ascendant. The skill tree is deep. Unlike the game’s predecessors, it seems you can make nearly any character build into a useful one. Instead of experience points, progression is gained by completing feats. These challenges require mixing up tactics and creative problem solving. Progression is further tied into the story, which I thought was a really nice touch. The Saurians magically record the Ascendant’s memories of unique survival tactics, which are then exchanged for new skills. I liked this little chunk of lore, as reasons for the character’s progress are often glossed over in modern games.
The Mysticism of Runic Magic
During my first forays into the abyssal depths, I’ve mostly been toying with the magic system. Unfortunately it’s a bit of a pain. There doesn’t seem to be a quick way to restore mana. Instead, it’s found as floating blue pickups. Wands with ready-made spells are also scattered around the environments, but these also use mana stores. This is one of the few times that I felt a mana regeneration system or plentiful mana-restoring consumables would have been a better fit. The system is further constrained by having to treasure hunt for runes, which are mostly random chest or enemy drops. When experimenting with new combinations, the game simply names these discoveries “New Spell”. This makes it difficult to understand what effects players have stumbled across, and whether they are beneficial or harmful. Supplementing magic skills with bow, stealth, or melee is a pretty good idea.
“New Spell” sure is a popular one with runic wizards these days.
Underworld Ascendant: Unfinished
There’s just no nice way around it – Underworld Ascendant feels like it came out of the oven way too soon. I ran into so many bugs and glitches after the initial tutorial levels that I swear I was playing an early access game, and since it has all the big industry veteran names attached, it feels fairly disappointing.
There’s a huge amount of rough edges and broken level geometry here. Characters get stuck on walls and other terrain features quite often, and then they do a little dance about it. Some of the enemies would be easy pickings when confused, while others would be incredibly and inexplicably lethal. The physics sometimes launches objects, or the Ascendant, several feet into the air for no apparent reason. I once got stuck on a chain so badly that I had to reload a previous save, so I guess climbing chains doesn’t quite work yet.
The offending save system.
Speaking of the save system, it makes entirely no sense. You can save at any time, but loading a save starts you right back at the beginning of the level. Players keep found items up to the point of your save, but these items then respawn in the level. Therefore, it’s possible to effectively duplicate any items found – or re-roll the random chests for better loot. Everything else, including enemies and traps, is reset? Why? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just be able to save anywhere, or just have a checkpoint system? Or have the silver sapling bethe checkpoint system? I mean, it’s already there as a respawn point you can pick up and place, why not just have an autosave system tied to the sapling?
The Silver Sapling, one of the callbacks to the original Ultima Underworld and your lifeline to immortality.
For a game that was marketed as a follow up to the grandfather of immersive sims, Underworld Ascendant sure breaks my immersion pretty often.
Underworld Ascendant: See You On the Otherside
While the core concept in Underworld Ascendant is promising, players are going to want to wait until Otherside irons out the bugs. If there’s one thing I hate to do, it’s dunk on a game, but there’s just too many problems here to overlook. Setting the environments ablaze or charming a creepy mind-beast into killing your enemies is incredibly satisfying. The exploration and environmental puzzle solving here is on par with what the Underworld series has always been about. I have high hopes for Underworld Ascendant – once it’s fixed.
Steam reviewers seem to have a lot of the same problems I ran into. Ouch.
For perspective, my girlfriend asked me if the game was a student project during one of my frustrating, bug-ridden play sessions. That’s not something very encouraging to hear from a supposedly fully-featured and finished title that’s slated to come out on consoles next year. The amount of potential in this title is astounding. It just really, really needs some tender loving care before I would consider a buy.
System Shock is a property held in as much (or maybe even more) esteem as Ultima Underworld once was, so there’s a lot on the line with the release of Underworld Ascendant.
It’s a shame to admit that Underworld Ascendant is a letdown – a classic case of over-promise and under-deliver. Unless Otherside does something timely and major to fix everything here, players are going to be extremely gun shy about any attempts to crowdfund their next game: System Shock 3. Until then, anyone anticipating Underworld Ascendant should be prepared to wait on it – or enjoy the carnival of craziness that constitutes its current form.