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.
The save system sees you plant a sapling tree that you then use as an anchor for future restarts, but if you don't plant one you restart the whole level from scratch if you die. Once you've taken out an enemy, even if you do die, they're gone when you respawn (indeed, the levels only reset once you've completed a mission), which makes advancing through a level a second time relatively quick but ultimately a bit dull. It doesn't help that the enemies you encounter are directed by terrible AI and awful pathfinding. Oftentimes you'll watch on as a skeletal guard walks facefirst into a wall while you slink past, and it's super easy to lure an enemy over a ledge and then climb back up and deal with them from range. When the arrows work, that is.
The first area you visit, the area that largely impressed us when we played it ahead of launch, is pretty polished. It was during a later mission in a different dungeon that alarm bells started ringing, as we were exploiting stupid enemy guards and trying to fill them with arrows when it became clear that our arrows were firing, but not landing. It wasn't every time, but it was enough to be a major problem, and it extended from the more lethal metal-tipped arrows to the water arrows used to darken candles and expedite stealthy gameplay. When our arrows started having zero effect on their designated targets we instead opted to play more aggressively, moving past enemies with less care, and the low-quality AI just didn't have the nous to keep up with our play, effectively turning what should have been a challenging obstacle into a mere inconvenience to rush past.
Players are dissuaded from fighting by the strength of the enemies, as it'll take three or so arrows to fell a skeletal grunt, but you'll have to apply several hits with a sword to bring about the same outcome in melee combat. The swordplay is simple, but it certainly had its thrilling moments as we blocked and slashed at our undead opponents. At least, until we realised it was much easier to just run past them for the most part, using the environment to our favour as we exploited our way out of trouble. Perhaps more variety in terms of enemy types would have helped keep things feeling fresh, as the majority of the time you're avoiding similar-looking skeletons that offer little in the way of gameplay diversity.
Once you've worked your way through a level, snuck past some skeletons, avoided a few simplistic traps, found your objective, and escaped the area via a portal, you'll find yourself back in the hub world that links everything together. It's here that you can level up, sell the gear you picked up during the last mission, maybe get a reward for your efforts, and head off on another mission. Talking to the NPC characters in this area can be a little on the strange side as these lizard-people gesticulate extravagantly for no reason, talk to you as if they were addressing a hall full of people, and often spout borderline gibberish that has little to no bearing on what you're doing. Your job is ostensibly to unite three factions by doing missions for them and earning favour, and there's an underlying race against time as a demonic villain called Typhon gathers his strength.
To spice things up, Typhon will even chat to you via voiceover monologue, usually at the start of a mission - his booming voice presumably there to remind you that there's method to the madness unfolding all around. The story beats failed to add much gravity to the experience, although it certainly didn't help that we were routinely pulled from our immersion by physics gone awry, enemies clipping through scenery, glitches galore, unfinished parts of the map and textures that didn't load, constant frame-rate drops (particularly when initiating combat, which is in itself problematic), and inconsistencies relating to our bow. After a while we just got tired of the game working against us, not because of design, but because it simply wasn't finished.
Much like this review our time with Underworld Ascendant ended rather abruptly. It was our second run at a particular level. The first ended when we got stuck behind a tree on our way to the exit and had to restart from scratch; the second attempt we tried to run at speed. The reshuffle meant a change of location for our objective and so once we'd got to the final area where our target was hidden, we started sneaking around and searching in the dark for our new goal. After a misstep or two we found our way under the level itself, stuck in a basement that eventually fell into a lake of water. Obviously, we weren't supposed to be here. As we splashed away in this serene body of water looking up at the dungeon hovering above, it dawned on us that we would be unable to find our way back into the level to complete our objective and that yet another restart was required. At this point, it became clear that we were just wasting our time, and with the technical problems mounting alongside our indifference, we decided to call time on our adventure.
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