If you look back through the annals of gaming history, in particular at the evolution of the relatively niche immersive sim genre, eventually you'll come across the names of Warren Spector and Paul Neurath. Now, we don't often reference the names of individuals when opening a review, but in this instance, it's relevant because Underworld Ascendant is the much-anticipated return of this pair of genre-defining developers (although, to be fair, while they appeared in public for interviews, this game was developed by a team under the leadership of someone else).
It's a homecoming in more ways than one. Not only are the developers now reunited under the banner of OtherSide Entertainment, but the pair is also once again working on an old franchise, one that made their names back in the day. Underworld Ascendant is a modernised take on a classic series; an indirect sequel to Ultima Underworld 2. Some of the core pillars from the originals are retained, but thanks to modernisations seen in the meantime, this is an emergent sim that looks to more recent reference points just as much as it does the lore of old. Like Tomb Raider - which came full circle and started aping the games that it once inspired - Ascendant mixes in its own flavour with ideas plucked from the many games that it directly informed in the intervening years.
When framed like that, Underworld Ascendant is a tempting proposition. Alas, the final product that we sat down to play for this review isn't reflective of the prestigious name it bears, and we regret to inform you that after having taken a closer look following a promising first impression, Otherside's return to the dungeon is less a crawl and more a stumble and a fall.
The idea behind the game and the concept that's explained to you in no uncertain terms is that you, the player, are supposed to think for yourself. That translates into a physics-based first-person adventure where challenges are rarely overcome with brute force and where the player must adapt their tactics in order to survive the trials ahead. OtherSide has built a number of levels, all of which have replayability in mind. Like we saw recently with Prey's Mooncrash expansion, the levels remix every time you start them anew, and while structurally they remain the same, albeit with new areas opening up, the placement of objectives and enemies shifts around the place to keep things fresh.
This setup allows Otherside to recycle the game's environments and you'll spend a lot of time retreading the same well-worn ground, except with different guards patrolling different areas to change up the dynamic. The rest of the environment stays mostly the same, however, which drains the excitement from exploration once you've visited an area a couple of times.
As you dig deeper and explore further, you'll regularly be called upon to use your smarts to progress. In theory, this is a fine idea, but the level structure means that once you've cracked a puzzle, every time you encounter it thereafter it's just unnecessary friction that slows your progress. Many of the puzzles can be solved using the game's much-hyped physics system, which is supposed to facilitate inventive play, but we found the physics lacking and inconsistent, and it caused all manner of bugs and glitches as we ventured further into the Stygian Abyss.
You can generally use magic, stealth, and combat to advance, and each of these areas can be levelled up with points accrued during play by performing certain actions. There's a pretty deep upgrade system too, but you'll have to sink in a lot of hours to see the extremity of what it has to offer, and we suspect that most people will grow tired of the game's many inconsistencies before they get anywhere near the tips of any of the branches across the trio of skill trees. If anything, we thought the distribution of skill points was a bit miserly and we'd have liked more options sooner.