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RPG Codex Review: Underrail
Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Thu 2 February 2017, 02:50:10Tags: Stygian Software; Underrail
[Review by MediantSamuel]
Releasing at the tail end of 2015, the year that brought us the likes of Pillars of Eternity, Age of Decadence and Shadowrun: Hong Kong: Underrail is an old school, indie, isometric, turn-based, exploration- and combat-focused CRPG inspired by Fallout, Arcanum, Neverwinter Nights and System Shock 2.
With the release of a new isometric RPG there’s always a guaranteed divide between players: those who prefer story, dialogue and choice & consequences and those who prefer exploration, combat and solid gameplay mechanics. It’s safe to say that Underrail slots itself firmly into appealing to the latter group but doesn't fully neglect the former (as some might expect). As Underrail seems to err on the side of “love letter” to the first two Fallouts, I’ll be making a couple of comparisons to them as I go.
This review was written some 13 months since the game’s initial release and is ultimately based upon my time playing the game over the past year; but also on the most recent experimental version of the game (188.8.131.52).
(I'd also like to give a shout out to Blaine's re-preview. A good chunk of my review, especially the areas concerning game mechanics, will be echoing his efforts.)
Predictably: Experience Systems & Character Creation
First off: the difficulty selection for Underrail is mostly familiar but has a slight twist in the form of the two “Experience Systems”. The Oddity experience system is an interesting alternative choice to the aptly named “Classic” experience system. The Oddity system trades the usual fare of murdering for experience points into a scavenger hunt of seeking out trinkets and curios that grant varying amounts of experience. These trinkets can take the form of animal ears, dog tags, old metro tickets or even familiar looking wrist-mounted computers. Should you prefer the comfort of familiarity the Classic system is a no-frills standard CRPG experience: kill rats (or in this case rathounds) and whatever else takes your fancy for your levelling needs (outside the usual assortment of quests that apply to both systems, of course.)
Moving onto the character creation itself, the player is given a blank slate from which to create their preferred protagonist a la Fallout. Almost a mirror to SPECIAL; Underrail’s chosen attribute system is made up of the following: Strength, Dexterity, Agility, Constitution, Perception, Will & Intelligence. SDACPWI, if you will. Strength measures your ability to hit hard and carry a lot of trash important items. Dexterity is for improving one’s efficiency with light weapons as well as being a standard D&D-style thief. Agility concerns itself with the all-important initiative roll & stealth as well as generally pretending to be a monk with dodging & movement points also. Constitution determines how many hits you can take to the face before falling over and also determines your Fortitude rating which determines your saving throw against physical effects. Perception increases your skill with guns and crossbows as well as how perceptive you are when it comes to hidden objects such as secret passages. Will concerns itself with casting a wide variety of spells such as fire, ice and telekinesis. Similarly to Constitution, Will also determines your Resolve which is your saving throw against mental effects. Last but only slightly least, Intelligence governs Hacking and is the attribute you put 7 points into for those sweet, sweet crafting feats.
The second of the three components to character creation is the Skills section; Skills are neatly sorted according to category: Offense, Defence, Subterfuge, Technology, Psi and Social. Offense and Defence govern your ability to murder your way through the game without being murdered in return by way of weapon skills and Dodge & Evasion. Subterfuge enables the enterprising thief to achieve his or her goals by way of stealth, lockpick, pickpocketing or hacking. Technology is a crafter’s wet dream (in a game where crafting is actually well implemented and interesting!) covering blueprints for guns, armour, medicines and utility items such as traps, grenades or ammo. Psi is for the wannabe mages among us and comes in three flavours: Metathermics, Psychokinesis and Thought Control. Social is for those of us who like to try and inadvisably talk our way through an exploration & combat focused game. Although with the addition of the most recent update more NPCs can be can be persuaded or intimidated into either helping you or into leaving you alone than at release, for example.
The final element: Feats. Feats are Underrail’s version of Fallout’s Perks - attained in a similar manner; every even level, and requiring a certain amount of an attribute and / or skill to obtain. Feats tend to walk the line of being mundane and familiar rather than revolutionary, for example: “Increase your carry capacity by 50” and "Reduces the action point cost of all Psi abilities by 5 while at full health." This isn't to say that all Feats are uninteresting, in fact some can be quite the game changer such as: "Grants you an ability that when activated will allow you to arm your next trap instantly, even in combat in which case it will cost no action points.” or "Grants you a special attack with a crossbow or a sniper rifle that deals 225% weapon damage plus additional 1% damage per stealth skill point. Can only be used in stealth. This attack cannot critically hit." While many feats feel like sanding down the rough edges of a build there are still several such as the two "game changers" mentioned above that bestow your character with interesting abilities.
As you may be able to gather from the brief descriptions above Underrail’s character creation lends itself to a variety of unique and interesting builds that beg for more than just the one playthrough. For example, on my first playthrough I rolled a stealth loving, crossbow using, trap laying, sticky fingers type of character. I snuck past groups of hard-hitting enemies that would have desolated my simple leather armour, sniped them from the shadows when they were alone and laid traps when I was forced to engage them in groups. I found tons of secret doors and passageways and constantly had an inventory full of junk due to all of the optional lockers and boxes I had cracked open.
Compare this to my latest character: a heavy armour wearing, assault rifle and sniper rifle wielding, grenade throwing “hammer meet nail” type of character. In this playthrough I tanked groups of enemies at a time with heavy steel plated armour and a strong high capacity shield generator. I threw down caltrops to slow melee enemies and used grenades where possible. Fights were usually opened by laying down a critical shot from my trusty sniper rifle which was quickly followed up by my assault rifle when the enemy closed in.
In essence: Underrail’s character creation is deep, engaging, complex and brimming with possibility - all the while being simple enough to understand at a glance. For the min-maxers among us a quick trip to the wiki may be in order before each new character to ensure the perfect build and avoid rerolling out of regret later on. The only suggestion I can make is perhaps to have a couple basic premade characters like in the first two Fallouts to give new players an idea of possible builds.
As exploration is around half of Underrail’s core experience I feel I should talk about that before moving onto the actual lifeblood of the game itself. Exploration in Underrail should be intimately familiar to anyone who’s played an isometric RPG in the last decade or so; you click on the map where you’d like to go and watch as your character steadily plods over to the point you selected using zone transitions where necessary. The usual assortment of boxes, barrels and lockers are scattered about to fulfil your hoarding needs while various trash mobs populate the various caverns and tunnels of the Underrail world for you to shoot, stab, electrocute, burn or freeze.
Once you’ve progressed through the optional tutorial your character is let loose (sort of) to restore power to a set of local, abandoned outposts. Locked doors and secret passageways offer a good variety of solutions to this initial quest. For example, if the player character is useless at lock picking but has enough points pumped into perception they can spot an underground tunnel that bypasses lock picking the door entirely. On the flip side if the player character is a clueless, incompetent melee brute you would simply miss out on reactivating all of the outposts and have to settle for a lesser reward when completing the quest.
The locations in Underrail are as you would expect: wining caves with or without lakes, gloomy subway tunnels, imposing camps of raiders and bandits, mysterious scientific labs, downtrodden settlements of varying types and forbidding military bases. Only a few locations really impress but at the same time the vast majority of areas are well-designed and interesting to explore. Environmental effects such as bats screeching and flying overhead, the gentle spinning of an air vent fan or the flickering of a barrel fire help to bring these locations to life. Certain areas of Underrail may also have deadly fixtures such as lingering poison gas or live electricity running through the floor gratings, adding another layer of interactivity and peril.
Underrail was both lauded and criticised for its lack of in-game map upon release. Arguments can be made for both viewpoints: a lack of map isn’t strictly a lack as such as the game itself is immersive and atmospheric enough to warrant learning one’s way through the various tunnels and caverns that make up the Underrail. The other side of the argument posits that getting lost in these caverns is easy to do and tedious so an in-game map is a simple feature that including it would not be overly strenuous. While I personally lean towards preferring no in-game map many of the caves do look slightly too similar and can often lead to walking in circles in what is effectively no man’s land. An idea has been suggested more than once and is that of an old metro map that shows stations and the paths between them rather than a full map, quest markers included, a-la Skyrim.
Exploration is made all the more engaging by the use of an atmospheric soundtrack by Josh Culler. The militaristic Protectorate has an appropriately intimidating war-like theme that features the sound of marching boots in the background. The caverns music is almost as haunting as it is calm, portraying the mystery of the cave systems that lie around the stations of the Underrail. Even Core City’s more dangerous areas have an upbeat, catchy soundtrack that conveys the chaos of the slums around you.
Despite its old school leanings Underrail features a robust crafting system. Now before you all groan in unison at the plague of modern day crafting systems, hear me out. Blueprints can be bought or found that enable the player to craft a variety of items. As you can see in the screenshot below my character has learned various blueprints, including the blueprint for sledgehammers and using the mandatory components of metal and a handle I am able to make a weapon that easily surpasses my own. As you can see from the empty slots below the mandatory metal and handle there is space for modifications such as an electroshock generator to add electricity to the weapon. This may sound rather similar to past iterations of crafting but honestly Underrail just gets it. For those worried about space: instead of lugging about a million and one items for crafting all the player needs is some high quality materials and almost instantly they can start swinging with their shiny new weapon.
It isn't always about walking to and fro however. As could probably be expected due to its setting Underrail features a train and boat based fast travel system which helps to both explore new places and to avoid some of that nasty backtracking I'll be covering later. Next up is arguably Underrail's best feature: its combat.
Underrail is often complimented for the sheer build diversity it offers although this build diversity would be wasted if the combat itself wasn’t any good. Thankfully I can indeed confirm that Underrail’s combat is thoroughly enjoyable in all its isometric, turn based glory.
Due to the above mentioned build diversity the player has a lot of options for how they choose to approach a situation. A few build examples are as follows but by no means is this the extent of them: The player could choose to use knives for quick attacks whilst wearing light armour for dodging, they could wield a heavy sledgehammer with even heavier steel armour or they could ambush targets from the shadows with a silent crossbow. This is all without mentioning the inclusion of Psi which lets you sling either fire or frost from a distance like a cliché mage, enhance your melee attacks to become a Psionic monk or control the battlefield with force fields and terror spells. Certain builds naturally work better than others but it is possible to mix and match skills in almost any way to enable the player to create their preferred combat style.
Regardless of build most characters will take advantage of certain utility items. These can range from molotov cocktails that spread a swathe of fire in the area they land, preventing enemies from advancing and potentially setting fire to those caught in its initial explosion to poisoned bear traps that root and infect their trapped target simultaneously. A final interesting utility item are flashbangs: flashbangs temporarily disorient player, friend and foe and have an extra powerful (and realistic, to boot!) effect when used against anyone wearing night vision goggles.
In more mechanical terms Underrail's combat is turn based, action point focused and features a cooldown system when it comes to special abilities and utility items. Player characters have a number of Movement Points (determined by the player’s Agility and various pieces of equipment) as well as a standard amount of Action Points - fifty to be precise. As you can probably tell moving consumes Movement Points (and Action Points, should you run out of the former) while performing actions such as throwing grenades or firing a weapon uses Action Points. Items such as grenades or special abilities come with a cooldown timer as well as an Action Point cost, meaning that abilities and grenades have to be used with some thought as to avoid backing oneself into a tactical corner.
One of Underrail's best gameplay features in my opinion is its sound system. The sound system turns the enemy AI into noise sensitive beings, enabling enemies to call for help when engaging you or letting you abuse their curiosity by throwing grenades to lure them at your discretion: usually into player-made minefields so you can watch them march to their doom as though they were sound-influenced lemmings. On the flip side this also means that nearby friendly NPCs will investigate if you happen to have a shootout, often trudging in puddles of acid and caltrops while they wonder what exactly that noise was.
Enemy variety in Underrail is generally satisfying. Human enemies make up the majority of opponents but due to the above mentioned sound system and the AI’s ability to make use of traps, grenades and special abilities engaging them is always an interesting affair. As could be expected a fairly large variety of non-human enemies also exist in appropriate locations. For example the player will often find rathounds in caves which are simply dispatched while psi beetles and siphoners lingering by underground lakes may require a little more thought and effort. Well-armoured burrowers tend to populate areas in swarms and are resistant to standard ammo while creatures lurking in the darker places of the underrail take a more cautious approach to deal with.
The default experience system Oddity pairs itself nicely with stealth focused gameplay by rewarding the player for exploring and choosing not to punish or penalise them for avoiding combat as the standard Classic system would. Oddities can of course be found on enemy corpses, this way both playstyles are rewarded though this approach clearly favours combat focused characters more than pacifists. The choice of an alternative to being railroaded into fighting all the time is definitely welcome regardless of how enjoyable and well-tuned the combat actually is.
Factions, Quests, Dialogue, Choices & Consequence
Underrail starts fairly simply: as a new inductee to a fairly “neutral” station the player character is tasked with a few simple missions to test their competence. These missions grow in difficulty, culminating in the search for a missing drill component that takes the player through a tough, mutant infested junkyard that may very well be the first test of how well their character performs. Upon finishing this arduous quest the player is given the freedom to explore the majority of the game world which is where the various factions all come into play.
The two main factions that concern themselves with the fate of the Underrail in its entirety should be relatively familiar for the most part: on one side a small group of freedom loving anarchist rebel types and on the other an authoritarian faction of soldiers that will go to any lengths to unite the world under their rule for the greater good. As the quests of these two groups usually involve bloodying the nose of the other it goes without saying that there’s no such thing as a peaceful resolution here.
There are also three smaller factions based in Core City that are slightly more interesting than the above. The first of these is an almost shadowy group based around the broadcasting of Core City’s televised shows: Gauntlet and Arena. The other two factions are the remnants of a corporation known as Biocorp, a scientific group that influenced a good number of background events within the game itself. These two factions are made up of the scientists and soldiers of Biocorp, respectively. In true RPG fashion the various factions, towns and communities the player visits all have a variety of ending slides depending on the choices made during the game.
The player is initially encouraged to journey in a specific direction by way of tasks given to him by the leaders of South Gate Station although opportunities for extra experience and loot always exist, usually in the form of a myriad of winding and twisting caves that lead off from the main locations the player can visit. An interesting design choice are moments during the main questline where the player's actions can lead to situations where they don't have a clear next step and must figure out how to proceed by themselves. Hints towards the identity of the main antagonist are scattered throughout the game and by the time I reached the late game I was fully engrossed in finding out the main two mysteries of the game: if the Faceless are actually out to invade the underrail and if Tchort even truly exists.
After a few run around tasks for one of the Core City factions the player is given what I would personally regard as an unusual choice in this type of RPG: a player home. The home provides what we all crave; a safe place for respite and somewhere to store all of the junk we normally collect during our adventures. The home has the potential for crafting benches (that the player will need to go out into the world to find) that provide a slight bonus to your character’s crafting skill when used. Sadly the home suffers a rather large flaw and questionable design decision; it’s placed in a corner of the middle level of Core City – this means three zone transitions from the player home to the main elevator of Core City and one transition to use the elevator if the player is venturing to Upper Underrail - if you want to go to Lower Underrail instead, two transitions are required rather than one. It may seem pedantic to list out zone transitions in this game but there are a lot of them to consider. If you were to head the player home for crafting this would require a minimum of around eight transitions, not including travelling from wherever in the world you are. Consider the several second autosave delay, the other elements of backtracking in the game and the fact that the player character moves at an almost turtle-like pace without specialised boots and the player home quickly becomes more of a chore to use than a reward. No one can argue that this isn’t consistent and logical world building it’s just a shame that it seems to have little respect for the player’s time and patience.
A welcome addition as of the most recent patch is the "Social" skills becoming more valuable for the intrepid talky murderhobo. For example, a gang leader asks for you to retrieve a keycard from one of his "acquaintances" at a local gambling den. In the base game the two options were either to ambush him inside the den or rifle through his pockets while he was still alive. In the most recent version the option to trick him into leaving the den has been added, letting the player annihilate the target more easily and without potential witnesses. Mercantile has also changed for the better, unlocking extra items in certain stores provided the player can pass the all-important prerequisite speech check before browsing the aforementioned store of choice.
Many early game quests in Underrail tend to take the shape of “go here, find this and bring it back” which, while not the height of creativity, serve to let the player loose to explore side routes and unleash their character on the obstacles in their path. As one might expect quests become more complicated and include more named characters as the game goes on and the stakes climb. A good example of the difference between the two are the early game mission to find drill parts in a nearby junkyard and the mid-game tasks given to the player by Jack Quicksilver that require a little more thought and care. Certain quests can have engaging twists such as finding hostages taken captive by talkative bandits while exploring a seemingly abandoned complex or stumbling upon an individual enraptured by a mind-controlling psi pillar. One notable quest in particular sees the player luring a rather large pest to its doom at the hands of a massive furnace. If the player has invested in speech skills they can convince certain other individuals to assist them in this task, making it exponentially easier.
Initially a case of Underrail’s tendency to backtrack Rail Crossing’s missing train quest was an early game example where complaints were raised. In its early life, the residents of a beleaguered town ask the player to find a missing supply train that has likely been derailed by rebels operating in the nearby tunnels. Prior to patching the player was required to run back and forth between the town, the train and a nearby outpost around half a dozen times or more often to relay simple messages with no reward in sight. Thankfully this quest has been patched to make the backtracking less egregious but examples of this design choice unfortunately still exist in many other minor quests.
Underrail’s story and writing have been criticised often since release, especially in comparison to the more wordy and dialogue focused Age of Decadence which released around the same time. Unfortunately Underrail’s writing tends to lack descriptive detail and features typos even at this stage of the game’s life. It’s fairly clear that the main focus for Stygian Software has clearly been on the engaging and enjoyable game mechanics rather than a deep, engrossing story. This isn’t to say that a backstory doesn’t exist or isn’t very good, it simply takes longer to unfold and is certainly easy to miss: one encounter in particular in a late game area struck me as very engrossing. Unfortunately due to the nature of the Deep Caverns it seems likely that many players would miss out on this kind of content, perpetuating the myth of a simple story.
Despite this Underrail still features well-written, consistent and interesting characters including but definitely not limited to: the hardliner member of South Gate Station’s council, Gorsky, the ancient leader of the mysterious Tchortists, Eidein and Vivian, a genuine and likable member of the JKK faction.
Due to the somewhat infamous reputation of the Deep Caverns I think it’s only natural I cover them at least partially in this review. Launching to complaints of endlessly respawning monsters, vague directions and yet more backtracking, the Deep Caverns have suffered a variety of changes since release that intend to balance the daunting final area. I can appreciate that the final area of an old school RPG should be a slog but the Deep Caverns takes this slightly too far with enemies around every corner, low supplies and a lack of direction. Despite the positive amendments and updates throughout 2016, this beautiful and atmospheric area filled with lore and backstory is still a chore to play through and often stops playthroughs dead – something I hope Stygian Software intends to continue to work on in the near future.
Underrail is a fantastic game that stands proud as both a spiritual successor to the original Fallout and as a legitimately great game in its own right. Whilst Underrail does have its areas of contention (Deep Caverns, backtracking, walking speed, ability cooldowns) Styg has demonstrated through recent updates that he does understand and appreciate at least some of the issues people have with Underrail and is committed to making it as great a game as he can. Despite the struggle that is the Deep Caverns the rest of the game is more than worth playing and only slightly detracts from the whole experience.
With the first expansion for Underrail coming soon there is no doubt in my mind that Stygian Software will continue to deliver glorious incline for years to come.
Special thanks to Blaine for his input and comments on the very first draft of this review back in January 2016.
You can buy Underrail on Steam or on GOG.