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Underworld Ascendant Review

Edited by: Tiffany Lillie
Editor’s note: There have been hotfixes released by the developer between the reviewer’s writing of this review and publication, so some problems mentioned in the review may not be problems any longer.

How Did This Happen?

No, really, how? As I sit here, behind my computer, thinking about Underworld Ascendant, I find myself with this one question. Underworld Ascendant is developed by OtherSide Entertainment and produced by 505 Games. OtherSide Entertainment is formerly Cerulean Sky Productions and founded by Paul Neurath. Yes, the same Paul Neurath that worked on the Thief games, System Shock II, and the original Ultima: Underworld games. Underworld Ascendant is supposed to be the third game in the Ultima: Underworld series. While I have never played the originals, it is painfully clear that Ascendant doesn’t live up to the lineage.

Expectation Versus Reality

Underworld Ascendant is supposedly an immersive sim. To that end, seeing the staff on hand for OtherSide Entertainment (which is comprised of many of the old staff of Looking Glass Studios) I was excited to see what would be on offer here. After all, how bad could an immersive sim helmed and made by some of the minds that produced some of the original and best games of the genre be? The answer, unfortunately, is pretty bad.

Underworld Ascendant sees you play as the Ascendant, some no-name cipher for the player tossed into a strange world with little explanation beyond “Typhon is wrestling his way out of his bonds and only you can stop him.” A fairly straightforward plot, to be sure, but given that it is a game like Deus Ex and the 2017 Prey, I went in fully expecting things to get more complicated as time went on. My wariness was affirmed when one of the NPCs gave me the aside, “find what is hidden and change your fate.” Unfortunately, the number of bugs I had to wade through, even five or so missions in, was unconscionable for an ostensibly-finished product with a not-cheap price tag.

Roadblocks

To call Underworld Ascendant fiddly would be an insult to fiddles. While I certainly appreciate the ambition of OtherSide Entertainment to build a game where most everything is controlled via the physics engine, the result is less than stellar. Character movement is floaty and imprecise, often feeling like you're controlling the acceleration of the Ascendant rather than his actual motion. Once I progressed far enough to unlock the wall-running upgrade I often found myself wall-running while even just running close to a wall, without having jumped like is normally necessary. The Ascendant, further, is very touchy around any changes in elevation. Oftentimes I found myself stuck at the top of stairs, in water, or just on oddly-placed geometry. Typically, I could jump or mantel my way over the obstacle once I realized why I was stuck, but not so much with the water physics. For whatever reason, the Ascendant can't seem to pull themselves out of the water via stairs. More often it is easier to climb up the sheer side of a pool rather than climb stairs out of it. The latter will see you slide backward, having lost all momentum to carry you up and out.

This is to say nothing of the more technical issues. Saving does not work reliably. The game itself is broken up into almost-rogue-lite-ish runs where you accept a contract, enter a portal, and are teleported to one of a handful of levels of the underworld. Should you want to reload a save you made in the middle of a run (say, if you somehow found yourself out of bounds or the level has you trapped in a pool of water) everything resets. Any chests you opened will be closed, the level gets re-randomized with slightly different objects and enemies, and you will be back at the start. At least your inventory is preserved between loads. However, certain quests see you search for a specific item that can be in any one of the chests in the level, then make it back to a portal placed elsewhere. Should you get stuck before acquiring the item, you only lose the progress you made searching through chests as they all reset. Should you have to reload after acquiring the item, you may completely lose the ability to finish the quest. As such, these runs, and really all runs, can be a matter of minutes to hours depending on your luck and focus.

Countdown to the End

This might be forgivable if the game were not on a clock. Typhon makes steady progress against his bonds each time you come back from a run. From your inventory screen, you can see just how many runs you have until Typhon breaks loose. This also serves as a measure of level difficulty; the higher the counter, the more the levels change to reflect the emergence of this titan. For the life of me, aside from steam and acid vents opening at odd places, I could not determine any change in difficulty level. Rather, tougher enemies seemed to consistently spawn the further down the main line of quests I went and the more skills I unlocked, regardless of where the Typhon timer sat. Moreover, about six or so main quests in, the game teaches you that the timer can be reset by exchanging items dropped from a particular enemy. These enemies are trivial, despite being a supposedly stronger form of a more basic enemy, and once they appear on one map you run into them almost constantly, rendering the counter meaningless.

Mechanically Lacking

The Typhon timer is not the only mechanic that left me scratching my head. At the end of every run, you’re graded on how much you used your environment, stealth, combat, and magic. A healthy combination of these will net you extra currency at the end of the run, though going through with a specific focus does not harm you in any way. Money is almost meaningless. Sure, some items degrade the more you use them in the field, but named or otherwise magical items do not. These are indicated by not having a quality adjective at the beginning of their name. These items exist across all armor and weapon types and are on par or stronger than their basic counterparts, rendering the degradation system useless. Moreover, enemies drop enough arrows, food, and other items to eliminate almost any necessity to buy these things. By the time I finished playing, I had accrued some thousands of silver with nothing to spend it on, when most items cost no more than a few hundred.

This further renders death meaningless as well. In order to respawn, you must plant the seed of a silver sapling. This sapling can be planted anywhere there is enough dirt to fit the model. Oftentimes I found myself less concerned with healing and more concerned with finding a patch of dirt to plant a tree so if I inevitably died I would respawn right there with full HP and no sense of self-preservation. After all, healing without magic is limited, and magic doesn’t regenerate naturally. To refill your magic meter, you have to collect these floating motes of light that are invisible without the right upgrade. The hitboxes on these motes are very precise, making it difficult to acquire them even when you can see them, but with the right upgrade, they will come to you. The designers almost admit that this is the way it should be via the inclusion of the Mana Leech pre-order item, which collects these motes for you. Allegedly, this pet, as well as a few other items, are available to anyone who plays within the first week of the game’s release, but I was unable to find my copies.

Hardly Immersive

The immersive sim genre can be somewhat hard to define, though the most reliable description I've heard is in terms of level design. Immersive sims see levels not as a linear jaunt from point A to point B, but rather as a puzzle to be solved with multiple angles of approach and solutions to be found. It might be trite at this point, but take the first level of Deus Ex. Sure, you can run headlong into the terrorist forces guarding the burned out husk of the Statue of Liberty, or you can sneak around the back way, or talk to the informant on the docks to get the codes to security, or release your captured colleague to assist in your mission. Each of these paths is distinct but can intersect in almost any way you wish. The level design in Underworld Ascendant is hardly this at all.

Sure, there are multiple pathways from the starting location, but since your objectives are randomly generated and could lie down any one of these pathways, your choice of build doesn't affect what routes are available to you. Often, an objective becomes this straight romp from point A to point B, either ignoring or fighting enemies as you see fit. Worse, the game can sometimes penalize you for your use, or overuse, of a certain tactic. Not wanting to fuss with the spotty hitboxes of the melee combat, I opted to almost completely use the bow from stealth for one level, aided by the fact that the AI sometimes breaks and doesn't register that they are under attack. When I returned to the hub world, I was informed that one faction (of which there are three — and you need all three's approval to progress in the game) found my use of the bow dishonorable. There was no addendum that it was the bow from stealth, or just the nature of the bow, or anything like that. Rather than switch up my tactics and just use the bow less frequently, I avoided the bow almost completely from that point forward since that didn't seem to affect my standing with anyone negatively.

I’ve spent a lot of this review harping on the mechanical and technical shortcomings of Underworld Ascendant, and I feel it is impossible to talk about this game without them. They’re so interwoven in the experience so as to be completely obtrusive to any enjoyment I could have with it. Beyond the times I found holes in the level geometry that I could waltz through, beyond the time a summoner enemy spawned so many enemies that the game slowed to a measly 10 fps (even on the lowest settings), I think what sums up my experience best is the bug that broke the camel’s back. Each run has a primary and side objective, and by this point, I had given up on the side objectives and just taken the quests I thought would be easiest. It turns out that the two objectives were contradictory: KIll all of this type of enemy on this location of the map and complete the mission without killing anything. I jumped through the portal and the game crashed on level load. I went to reload the game, thinking it’d drop me back in the hub world, but no, I was taken right to the mission end screen. Apparently, I had full marks in stealth, none in anything else, and had even, paradoxically, killed all of that enemy without having landed a single kill. Apparently, and I don’t know this for sure, the game had failed to spawn in any of that creature, and not knowing what else to do, gave me credit for a completed mission and brought me back to the hub world.

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The Verdict: Hardly Playable

Underworld Ascendant is fatally broken. The developers have come forward stating that they are, and I quote, “listening” to the feedback the community is providing, but the game is far from finished. This should have, at best, been a beta, not a full release. To their credit, during my review, they pushed a patch that fixed the bug that removed all the spells from your spellbook between level loads. It will take many, many more fixes to bring this game into a playable state, and from my limited experience in game design, it seems like it would almost be easier to burn the whole thing down and start from scratch.

John Gerritzen
Written by
December 05, 2018
Published in Action

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John Gerritzen is a programmer by education, author by hobby, and game critic by occupation. While he usually favors RPGs, he will play anything that engages him narratively or mechanically. When he's not playing games for fun or profit, he's usually reading or watching anime.

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