Underworld Ascendant is an immersive first person dungeon crawler that is heavily based around the much loved Underworld Ultima in which you play The Avatar (sadly not the airbending variety); a hero tasked with venturing into The Stygian Abyss, in order to do battle with the demon Typhon and his undead hordes.
This is a game I really wanted to like. Imagine the dungeons of Skyrim laid end to end, or the opening of The Elder Scrolls Online when you are in the clutches of Molog Bal. I really wanted Underworld Ascendant to be like that, and for a while it lived up to the promise, although there is no third person option, which is good because the customisation options are literally the tone of your skin and the sound of your voice. With the studios of Otherside entertainment and 505 Games at the wheel, famous for games such as Thief, System Shock and Ultima, you’d expect well crafted story and slick gameplay. Sadly these never materialise.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here, let’s start with the graphics, which are well, okay. They suit the game’s style, but at times it’s just all too dark with patches of fluorescent to light the way. When I say it’s too dark I mean you can’t tell a door from the rest of the wall, and I spent the majority of my time in Ascendant retracing my steps in order to find pressure pads I’d missed to open the gate to a portal I had to enter. Having said that though, the darkness does indeed add to the immersion of being trapped in a claustrophobic dungeon and this is what Underworld Ascendant is all about. The audio is excellent and again adds to the atmosphere of the game, with noises filtering through from the dungeon’s depths and a musical score that doesn’t overpower the other audio in the game.
One of the great things about this game is that it doesn’t hold your hand and point you in the right direction all the time, and with multiple ways to problem solve in Underworld Ascendant, from how to open locked doors using either a wand or fire, through to how you traverse the game world, it’s all left up to you. Now in principle this sounds great, up until you have to find your way to a mission goal through that dark – and I mean dark – dungeon. But there’s no mission marker and it’s up to you to find your way. In a game world where you can move vertically as well as horizontally this can cause a bit of confusion.
Talking of moving through the dungeon itself there are some great ideas in place from climbing chains to wall running, but they are again left to you to figure out while your mentor blathers on about how we must stop Typhon.
All through the Underworld there are some vague sets of instructions written on walls for you to find. Runes for example allow you cast certain spells using combinations of runes, but you have to stop, open your spell book, put the runes in order and then cast them, meaning you never seem to have the right spell for the right time; be it opening doors to causing damage to the denizens of the abyss. The rune system is another great idea in principle but for a game that makes its bones on being an immersive sim, it goes out of its way to break the immersion and take you out of the flow.
Let’s also talk about the combat system which could have done so well had it followed the Skyrim school of first person combat. But when this game is given another chance to shine it falls short by some distance, boiling down to blocking and smacking the given enemy with your sword until he falls over. The animations for the swordplay basically consists of the sword moving up and down, making you wish that as much effort had gone into the hack and slash as had gone into crafting the dungeonscape
Another great idea that should have been capitalised upon, especially from the people who gave us Thief, is the stealth play. To be honest there is a nice play style to be had playing as a rogue style player, using water arrows to put out torches for example (straight out of the Thief play book) and sneaking about is aided by a few points in the rogue skill tree, giving you an eye that indicates how easy it is for the enemies to see you. Although it is possible to sneak past enemies by sticking to the shadows, it is not possible to perform a sneak attack or some sort of powerful melee on your foe.
Skill points, or Memora as they are known, seem awarded arbitrarily and can only be spent when you return to the hub world and speak to the skills vendor. This is yet another missed opportunity as it removes the immersion all the more by not allowing you to try skills out on the fly, rather making you wait and hope that a situation arises again whereby that skill is handy. Skills from the skill tree help to define what class your character is based on whether it be Rogue, Warrior or Mage. You do not have to choose to be a specific class, rather mixing up all three to gain bonuses to things like health or carrying capacity.
I have a few gripes with Underworld Ascendant (no really), but they are mostly centred around where I feel opportunities have been missed. In fact Underworld Ascendant on Xbox One could have been a pretty decent game, but everything from the repetitive mission design (go here, fetch/kill that) to the numerous ideas that don’t pan out as they should, sees it sadly fall short of great by quite a margin. That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable, because it is, it’s just that I have nagging thoughts of “that could have been done better” or “they’ve missed a trick there”. As I said earlier, I really wanted to like Underworld Ascendant, but there is just too much wrong to allow that to happen.