Underrail’s journey to release has been a long one. Starting back in 2008, Stygian Software began creating its custom engine for the game, before finally releasing the game on Steam Early Access in 2012. Eventually, in December 2015, the game left Early Access and became a full, completed title. Underrail is a turn-based, post apocalyptic RPG set entirely underground, due to some catastrophic event (the backstory is shockingly absent in the game proper) that has rendered the surface uninhabitable. So far it sounds like a cross between Metro 2033 and Fallout, right? You wouldn’t be far off with that, but unfortunately it resembles the original Fallout and not any of its sequels.
Let me explain: in trying to be retro and hardcore, Underrail eschews modern mechanics in favour of an archaic gameplay style from which the industry moved on long ago. The isometric viewpoint and 2D visuals aren’t a problem at all, with some wonderful attention to detail in them, it is all down to the gameplay’s issues. The exploration is all very interesting, looting underground bunkers and selling your finds to the vendors of the Underrail, but you will come to hate the little beep that signifies the start of a combat encounter.
Combat is similar to games like Jagged Alliance or XCOM, albeit with none of the clever design seen in the latter. Each turn begins with a set number of action points that you will spend in order to move, attack, reload, etc. but, as is evidenced in almost every combat encounter, the enemy AI constantly tries to rush you with as many numbers as possible. This may not have been a problem if this was a squad-based affair but it isn’t, you’re always on your own and at the mercy of the frankly unfair, horde-like AI. An example of this occurred during a mission to find a man gone missing in the caves, an early mission but apparently one that takes no notice of any kind of levelling system. In these caves were Psi Beetles, large beetles with the ability to shoot telekinetic blasts, and this particular area held several of them. Did they attempt to flank me, maybe use the environment to their advantage? No, they all rushed in and started firing. Could I use cover to aid my defence? Nope. There is no form of cover mechanic in Underrail. Given that my character could only afford a couple of attacks, three at best, causing very little damage with them to boot, and the beetles would hit me with two attacks each to deal approximately twice as much damage as I could, there was no way I could have ever survived the encounter at the current level. After several attempts, varying my tactics and trying new weapons/items, every death taught me one thing: there is no variety in the AI whatsoever.
The one thing that Underrail does to help, is in allowing you to export a character and then import it into a new game, complete with all items and upgrades. This means that you could play for a few hours and level up a bit, then restart the game with a stronger character from the outset, to aid in your struggle against the game’s ‘hardcore’ stylings. Levelling up can happen in two ways, depending on a choice you make when starting the game: you can either use the traditional method of gaining experience (XP) by completing quests and killing enemies, or you can use Underrail’s unique ‘Oddities’ system. Oddities are dotted around the game world and, once found, will increase your XP. It’s a much slower method of levelling up but it’s an interesting idea nonetheless. If you choose the traditional experience system though, finding Oddities will still increase your XP in addition to the killing of enemies and completion of quests – the best of both worlds, really. The fact that Stygian Software gives you the option of the traditional experience system seems to show a lack of faith in their new system. Instead of tailoring the system to be accessible to new players, while remaining obscure enough to keep the hardcore players happy, the option of bypassing it almost entirely feels like a poorly-judged compromise.
This may seem like an unfairly negative review so far, but Underrail does have some redeeming qualities. Its characters are interesting, the game introducing each one with a noir-like descriptive passage, giving Underrail a sense of atmosphere akin to that of Harebrained Schemes’ Shadowrun games. This is important as you’ll find yourself returning again and again to these characters, whether to further your story or to barter with them and restock for another outing, and you will begin to learn who they are as a result. Speaking of bartering, there’s no simple buy/sell option here, instead you actually have to barter as the game suggests. If you want that new piece of armour, you could simply offer the sum of money requested or you could trade goods, though it often skews it heavily in favour of the merchant – nothing like real life, eh? This whole method of haggling for goods adds an extra layer of atmosphere to the ‘underground survivalist’ nature of the world.
Underrail’s character development is another impressive feature. The exterior creation is nothing to write home about, but the stats (and potential gameplay options from them) offer a depth befitting an RPG of this type. Character types range from stealthy types, brutish warriors and thoughtful psi users, all the way to scavengers that build all their own equipment. This is yet another interesting feature within this underground wasteland: crafting. Build your own weapons and armour via blueprints found throughout the game, which is the only way to get hold of certain equipment, and you can either use those creations to directly aid in your adventuring or to make a profit by selling them on or trading for health items or ammo – both of which are always needed.
All these things just highlight how good Underrail could have been, if the developer hadn’t insisted on using such an archaic gameplay model. With more intelligent and varied AI, and a combat system that didn’t effectively screw over anyone wanting something just a little more accessible (sadly a trait shared with many games attempting to be ‘hardcore’, especially the retro-styled ones), this could have been a genuine classic instead of a missed opportunity. This makes it all the more baffling considering the length of time the game spent in Early Access, where many of these complaints should have been addressed.
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