SANTA MONICA, California—You’d be forgiven for losing track of Underworld Ascendant. The first-person RPG emerged in early 2015 as another entry in the “game-dev veterans launch a Kickstarter” fray, though this one stood out by emphasizing its Looking Glass Studios heritage. Some of the names behind the original Thief and System Shock games were back to try again, the game’s Kickstarter campaign announced—and to renew the classic Ultima Underworld series, at that.
Many years later, a backer-only pre-alpha has been the only proof of life for this crowdfunded game, but that changed during a pre-E3 press event. There, we got to see exactly how Underworld Ascendant‘s promise of “no right way to play—only your way” has so far turned out.
In short: an action-RPG revelation this ain’t, at least so far. And while standard-issue adventuring and a mountain of bugs in a preview aren’t entirely uncommon, the latest build’s issues make us wonder how, or in what state, Underworld Ascendant will launch this September.
After asking members of the event’s assembled press to play however we wanted—through brute force, stealth, magic, or clever experimentation—writer and director Joe Fielder let us loose into a dimly lit cavern level, pre-equipped with a variety of weapons and spells. Fielder offered a three-sentence overview of the game’s lore, revolving around our journey into the Stygian Abyss, but other than brief, vague narration at the outset, the demo offered no indication of how story or lore will appear within UA‘s core gameplay.
Eventually, a series of narrow corridors opened up to a giant hall, and it included a few paths—sneakier routes along edges, or an outright leap into combat in the center—that we could take to enter a compound on the other side and capture a treasure. I played through this gameplay slice a few times, and at no time did any of my chosen tactics feel satisfying.
To start: combat. Nothing about UA‘s current first-person swordplay and archery feels right. Melee combat strikes were difficult to aim, and any visual or audio recognition of my strikes was lacking. My combat successes seemed contingent on enemy models—mostly ragdoll-bouncy skeletons—but they often didn’t react. Crouch-walking around with a bow, meanwhile, repeatedly got enemies’ attention even when I was out of their line of sight, despite an on-screen indicator with a closed-eye icon that appeared to confirm my hidden state.
Emphasizing spells didn’t help matters. The primary spell at my disposal, a freeze-enemy move, required aiming and firing multiple times to actually ensnare enemies, even when I was aiming at enemies who stood still. The same went for when I tried to use a sticky seed that I found lying on the ground to ensnare or freeze enemies or traps. (When I finally got a skeleton soldier stuck, it wobbled around in the ground like a wacky inflatable tube.)
I was encouraged to set doors on fire as a means of traversal, and sure enough, anything in the world made of wood could catch fire. Why bother finding a key? But there was only so much stuff in the level made of wood, and no other chemical-reaction spells or items were made available to enable creative spell-solution possibilities. Will we see a variety of burnable, freezeable, and meltable elements in various dungeons to use to either solve puzzles or rain down hellfire on our foes? If so, this gameplay slice didn’t reveal them.
Instead, I felt like I had my best time just flinging various powers around while tearing through a been-there-done-that take of series like Thief and Dishonored. “This could be pretty good with another year of polish,” I thought to myself as I wall-ran to reach a faraway platform, marched through a sluggish, annoying series of traps, and clumsily slapped my sword onto a skeleton until it finally decided to die.
Then I went back to OtherSide Entertainment’s site to confirm the release date. September of this year? Say what?!
It wasn’t just the glitches and frame rate hitches that had me concerned. This gameplay reveal may have included a branching-path room with a guarded treasure at its end, but each of the paths had its tactics loudly telegraphed. The stealth, combat, wall-running, and magic paths weren’t pockmarked with hidden paths or alternate tactical items to use. I’d see a chandelier—quite out of place compared to its surroundings—and immediately recognize that I needed to shoot it down. I’d see a wooden door and know that I needed to burn it down to get anywhere.
For a design staff that has so many luminaries among its ranks—none higher than Warren Spector, arguably—the fruits of its labor thus far play like a mountain of compromise. The demo didn’t disabuse my notion that OtherSide might just be hustling to get this years-old project out the door with its current series of “yes, you can set stuff on fire and do other elemental tricks” duct-taped together. And a lower-scaled sales pitch might just be fine! “Our skeletons are dumb, and our spells are kind of busted, and our questing is limited, but you’ll have enough fun with the janky stuff, we swear.” I could endure that.
But Fielder aimed high with his pre-E3 sales pitch, and it just didn’t match the game I played. Unless OtherSide has some seriously surprising material still hiding in its vaults—a bunch of incredible, branching dungeon designs, or a wealth of new elemental powers, or, gosh, yet another launch delay—anybody looking forward to Underworld Ascendant should be very careful with their optimism.