Underworld Ascendant's developer list reads like a Walk of Fame for the genre of immersive sims - including developers from the System Shock, Bioshock, and Ultima Underworld series - and we were recently invited to test out the immersion for ourselves as we played a brand new section of the game in London. OtherSide Entertainment has the legacy behind it for sure, but this was a chance for a deeper look after our initial first impressions.
We spoke to OtherSide after playing the game to hear about their motivation going into this Underworld game, and Paul Neurath explained to us that they "didn't want to simply do a sequel or revisit those games, because we made those games in the early '90s and we've learned a lot since then, and we really wanted to push the immersive sim category forward."
We started at the very best place to start - the tutorial. A tutorial is important in all games, but it's especially important here because of all the systems in play. First, we have to get to grips with how to move in the first-person game, then interact with things, and then traversing the environment. These basics all work as you'd expect, but then the layers start falling like onions and before you know it there's a lot to consider.
One of the first lessons we're taught is the importance of stealth. It's not compulsory by any means, but we're shown how sticking to the shadows and using water arrows to extinguish torches can make the difference. After all, sneaking past enemies can save some health and hassle, especially when they're stationed above you and have arrows that can quickly chomp away at your health bar.
Once we had shown a certain proficiency in sneakiness we were encouraged to get into some basic combat, which is your usual RPG-esque experience in the sense that you press one button to attack and another to block. The enemies here offer a pretty tough resistance though, so this won't be the favoured option for many situations, especially when multiple enemies are swarming you at once.
So far so good, but there was plenty more added to our inventory during the tutorial period that we had to consider. A glowing stone, for example, illuminated dark corridors for our convenience, and there was a seed that allowed us to plant a tree at certain areas which served as a point of revival when we died later on. Then there were the food items to restore health; the various types of arrows for different purposes (e.g. a blast one to knock enemies down); and even throwing axes.
Last but not least there is also magic to consider, as various wands allow you to deploy magic in a number of ways. Levitating things is one of the most basic of abilities, but as you progress you unlock more advanced options like flames which can be used to do things like burn doors down. It's not just wands that enable magic though, as the game also lets you combine the magical runes you find in the world for various effects, such as healing yourself.
Magic, stealth, and combat form the three pillars of gameplay in terms of the mechanics, so to complement these OtherSide provides you with an extensive skill tree to upgrade your character. We focused mainly on the latter two, and with stealth our first port of call was to unlock an ability that showed us how visible we were at any one time, which translated to an eye symbol on the screen which worked almost identically to the Elder Scrolls series. Then we unlocked an ability to deal extra melee damage on enemies whose backs were turned.
With regards to the combat skill tree, this is also similar to what you've seen in other RPGs, improving your potency with particular weapons as well as other elements like the speed of your swings. There's a ton of stuff to unlock but as with any good RPG, you have to really think about how you invest your limited skill points to try and maximise the effectiveness of your chosen play style.
What's also important to consider is your equipment, as throughout The Stygian Abyss (where you're exploring in order to unite the three factions and take down an evil threat) you'll find not only armour but also weaponry to aid you in your journey. Daggers, for example, will be best for quick slashes and stealth, while a mace might be better for brute force. What's also important to consider is that you have a limited amount of space in your immediate inventory, which works a little like Minecraft in the sense that you can scroll between a certain number of items on the fly in-game, while the rest requires you to stop and access the inventory. Oh, and the game doesn't pause for you to do this.