The immersive sim is an unusual genre. At times it’s capable of really capturing the imaginations of a wide audience and drawing them into a complex world of action and consequence, of conjuring a game within a freeform environment, but then the appetite for the genre so often seems to peters out. Part of that is surely to be with the games themselves and marketing, as titles seen as a new dawn for the genre like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored are then followed by sequels that don’t have the same success at the tills. There’s peaks and throughs much more so than with other genres.
Hoping to find a new peak are OtherSide Entertainment, featuring notable industry and genre veterans as Warren Spector and Paul Neurath, creating a successor to what is often seen as the game that created the genre: Ultima Underworld. Underworld Ascendant might not have the Ultima name, but it’s set in the same fantasy world, bringing players back into The Stygian Abyss. As the great evil Typhon awakens, raising an army of undead to try and conquer the Underworld, you’re cast as the Ascendant, a being that has to try and reunite the tribal factions in the world and try to shackle the threat once more.
It’s a fairly straightforward conceit, but one that leaves an appealingly plain canvas for the gameplay and the player to flourish. You have numerous options available to you in every situation, leaning into stealth, fighting and magic whenever encountering enemies. These elements will be familiar for many, with a stealthy approach all about staying in the pools of darkness and using water arrows to snuff out candles and braziers from afar, while fighting from a first person view will be familiar from many first person RPGs. Magic is much more unique though, as you find runes and then combine them according to recipes that you discover in the world, conjuring up spells that can then be unleashed.
While these three paths can naturally be improved as you level up – at the end of each area, the game awards Memora points toward your skills depending on how you approached the level – you also have a fourth category of using the environment to your advantage. My natural tomfoolery in the game actually paid dividends, as I found a room with a brazier and started picking up wooden items and chucking them on top. I was actually a little surprised, first by how the objects have a physical weight that affects how you can move them, and then to see that they’d actually catch fire. These environmental interactions can be used to overcome some of the game’s puzzles, setting crates alight and then placing them next to wooden doors so that they then catch fire as well.
The combat in these early scenarios is attritional, as you go up against the first of the skeletal undead through the game’s tutorial area. They can take quite a beating, whether trying to fire arrows from a distance or smacking them with a rusty old sword, or even whacking them with bones. It’s easy to dance around them as they signpost their attacks, but it still takes several hits to knock them down. The early instances of magic also feel somewhat underwhelming. You’d expect a magical punch to knock enemies flying or stagger them, but in this build they lacked impact.
Hopefully improving the feedback you get through fighting and the balance of these early encounters has taken place in the final stages of development – this build was already several weeks old, but the game is releasing for PC at the end of next week. At some points I thought, “You know what? I bet I can just run past these enemies,” channelling my inner parkour master and my memories of Mirror’s Edge to skip around the slow moving foes. It almost certainly won’t be a tactic that works all the way through the game, but combine speed with elements of stealth play could be very effective.
Whatever your approach, you’re aided by the game’s rather unique checkpointing system. Instead of having auto-saves or quicksaving at will, you have to find the saplings of a tree within each level, planting them in fertile soil so that you can return if you’re defeated. Whether you’re looking to play by the rules, as it were, or break them with a less conventional approach, it gives you the safety net to explore the possibilities without punishment.
There’s lot of interesting ideas and interactions to sink your teeth into, but I must say that the opening stages felt a touch underwhelming, a slow burn as it introduces you to the world and the manner in which you can interact with it. The environments should be quite varied, thanks to having you jump into portals to get between levels and locations, but always underground, whether it’s built carved tunnels or more cavernous areas.
Deeper into the game and it promises to flow and adapt around your decisions. Your choices as you interact with the three factions in the story can see the balance of power shift one way or another, or you can shun them all and seek to take the power for yourself. Much like how your abilities are shifted based off how you play, the world and the story should shift around your actions.
For fans of the genre, this is definitely one to pay attention to, whether it’s just to get your immersive sim, action RPG fix, or for long term fans of Ultima and the work of the talented figures that are returning to a genre they helped create.