At the risk of jumping on a bandwagon, we cannot review Underworld Ascendant in its current form. Despite having released this time last week, it’s clear that it’s still full of bugs and glaring design issues. It’s a shell of the promise from the original Kickstarter and from the team that made it at OtherSide Entertainment. In fact, I’m going to say that the game is simply unplayable as things stand.
That might sound like the kind of empty hyperbole that is thrown at games that don’t reach the levels of polish or quality that we might have expected, but here, the claim is a simple one. In tandem with crash bugs, the obtuse, baffling, and player unfriendly save system that OtherSide Entertainment have decided to use makes playing the game nigh on impossible to overcome. While you can create checkpoints within a level, your progress isn’t actually truly saved until you have cleared a dungeon. It takes the shell of an immersive dungeon crawler, matches it up with what’s akin to a roguelite save system, and doesn’t even explain it within the game.
My first attempt at playing was going well enough – with the caveat that the game itself feels dated and a bit janky – but as a parent with other commitments, I had to stop playing and selected save game from the menu. On returning to the dark and dismal underworld later, I was surprised to see that I was back at the beginning of the level with all of my inventory complete but no progress logged. I assumed that this was due to a bug since the game had updated to a more recent version, but once I looked at the discussion forums on Steam, it turns out that’s not the case. This complex game with large immersive dungeons is designed to not save your progress between sessions.
If this decision were not maddening enough, there is a checkpoint mechanic built into the game. Shortly after the opening section you find a silver sapling (nicely nodding back to the classic original Underworld games) which you can plant as many times as you like at predetermined points. This enables a restart point should you die, which given the shonkiness of the collision detection and physics is entirely necessary. Given the rigours of a game, even being able to use these as a suspend point (as is often found in handheld JRPGs) would be a blessing, but that’s not the case. Unless you are able to finish whole sections, and there is absolutely no way of knowing how long a section will be until you have finished it, you will be forced to replay boring sections of depressing dungeons again and again.
It is not just the save system that is broken, – though the fact that this was a deliberate decision means that’s not quite the right term. Underworld Ascendant is a physics-based sandbox, which means that there are potentially multiple ways to approach puzzles and combat encounters. Many of these solutions simply don’t work right now.
The object collision physics are ridiculously over responsive, so bumping into a pile of crates that you have spent minutes trying to make into a stairway knocks them all flying. Enemies have the AI of aggressive lemmings, running straight at you with no discernible behaviour types or strategies. Light and dark mechanics that seem to offer some interesting room management opportunities either don’t work or are deliberately scuppered by unquenchable light sources hardcoded into areas you’re forced to sneak through. Controls are jerky, the graphics are fine but certainly not cutting-edge, and the voice acting, or the little I have been able to experience, functional but annoying after repeated listens.
I just don’t know what to make of this released version of Underworld Ascendant. For a game with such a rich pedigree, especially given some of the talents who have been brought in to help with its design, it is currently a total failure. The mythological setting, the idea of multiple approaches and the updating of classic dungeon crawl mechanics all suggest that somewhere there is an idea of what Ascendant is meant to be. Surely what we have is not it.
Hopefully OtherSide are able to act quickly to address some of the most glaring issues with crashes and the save structure – they’ve released two hot fixes so far – before turning to other structural flaws. As it stands, this is a game that literally prevents you from playing it, and until it is able to be played, we can’t really review it. So for now, avoid Underworld Ascendant.
Editor’s note: While many of the same criticisms about bugginess, lost progress and poorly considered design were ones we levelled at Fallout 76, Steve has been unable to make any meaningful headway whereas Jason was able to at least delve 30 hours into the game and get a real feel for its weaknesses. As such, we’ll wait until issues with the save system and game crashes have been fixed before returning to review Underworld Ascendant.