Earlier in 2018, we got hands-on with Underworld Ascendant. This incredible first-person dungeon crawler is the long-awaited successor to the Ultima series of games. Taking place in the same universe as the Ultima Underworld series, Underworld Ascendant reunites some of the luminaries of the RPG genre. Many of the original team from Looking Glass games have reunited to take return us to the Stygian Abyss. As the Ascendant, you must weave your way through countless enemies, lairs full of traps and conundrums, and a world that might very well burn down around you.
The Stygian Abyss has changed since we last saw it. With another 6 months of work behind them, the team at Otherside Entertainment have really outdone themselves. A handcrafted set of environments await anybody brave enough to log into the Abyss and things have moved on tremendously in our own absence. On logging into the latest iteration of the Underworld adventure, it is clear that more than a few advancements have taken place. The bare stone walls and plain textures that decorated the very first tutorial level are now a rich feature filled labyrinth. Global illumination has worked it’s way into the environment and the team at Otherside has been collaborating with Unity in getting things just right. Intricate ancient monuments can be found around every archway and a luminescent magic accompanies the crackling flame that lights your path. Fire is, however, far more than just a guiding light in the Stygian Abyss.
One of the guiding principles of Otherside’s process is an interactive world. Otherside have already handcrafted a bunch of levels, all with some serious environmental interaction. Just like during our first adventure, players can pick up and manipulate objects. Strong enough Ascendants can move lanterns, throw cutlery, and drag furniture around the hallways. Fire can light dead torches and even burn down doorways. This is largely due to Otherside’s emphasis on simulation. Both Underworld Ascendant and System Shock 3, presently being developed by Otherside, can expect to see various elements that enhance the player’s ability to manipulate the world and everything in it. When scuttling around the corridors of the Abyss, this could mean dousing burning flames, breaking open pots, to constructing your own molotov wicker baskets.
This type of physics-based realism allows significant flexibly in approaching any given situation. Puzzles have more than one solution, enemies can be actively avoided and the combat system makes an interesting accompaniment to this design. My adventure into the Abyss tooled me up with a variety of skills from three skill trees. Combat, Magic, and Stealth skills imbue the player character with a host of abilities that distinctly influence the way you play through. These don’t conform to any set class, and progression is entirely free form. The only limitation is the number of available skill points. On checking the available combat skills, I found a range of available implements, notably a sword and bow. With limited ammunition available in chests, ranged combat is far from a fire and forget. Arrows have to be drawn to make any impact and they will attract attention when released. Melee combat feels substantially more satisfying and after taking a few stabs at it, I found myself hacking through hordes of undead skeletons. The real revelation, however, comes when combat synergizes with other systems.
Magic, for example, is not simply a tool. It can be used to manipulate objects, levitate items, and solve puzzles. It can also be used in battle. Imagine the moment you draw a wand and bind a particularly nasty monster to the floor, stroll up behind it, and going ham with a sword or simply throw a skeleton down a hole. With just as many approaches to each encounter, the random generation of enemies, quests, and rewards means that Underworld Ascendant looks like being more than a simple physics puzzle. The potential to log into the new player hub, pick a quest from the available list, and jump blindly into a new experience makes me hopeful that when Otherside’s newest title reaches Beta it will make the Stygian Abyss feel like a world apart from other dungeon crawlers.