It’s a testament to the original Fallout’s quality that when I first played it in 2010- some thirteen years after its 1997 release- it still managed to captivate me. Though I had missed out on all PC gaming up to that point, the game’s blend of turn based combat, pen and paper inspired character building, and large, satirical world was all so well crafted that I couldn’t help but to lockpick every door and speak to every character. Stygian Software is attempting to recapture the magic of not only Fallout, but similar games of that era like Neverwinter Nights and Arcanum in their title Underrail. The game is currently in alpha and I have been really digging into it- here are some thoughts.
Characters are built around conventional tabletop tropes of the recent era. Points are invested into strength, dexterity, agility, will, perception, intelligence, and constitution. Skills fall into categories like offense, defense, technology, subterfuge, and include guns, dodge, lockpicking, and persuasion. Feats that give players other extra abilities- like being able to move more after killing an enemy and increasing critical hit chances- are also included. If you’ve played a cRPG in the last decade, you’ll easily recognize everything here. Underrail also includes a ‘psi’ category of skills that let players use psychic based attacks.
When I started up the game, I used my go-to rogue archetype, focusing on sneaking, lockpicking, and ranged weapons with some persuasion. I also took points in metathermics- a psi based ability that allowed me to manipulate temperature and consequently attack with fire and ice. Jumping into the game, I immediately got flashbacks to Black Isle’s Fallout– my strongest reference point to cRPGs of the late 90s. The 2D world is built on hexes, navigated with the mouse, and viewed from the isometric perspective. The game’s post-apocalyptic premise is that the surface is no longer inhabitable and humans are forced to live and travel in underground stations. After running around in the open world bunker and clicking on everything that didn’t involve me stealing, I finally headed up to the administrator to get my orders. There’s no voice acting in the game, so dialogue is conveyed through text and numbered, player responses. I’m pointed in the direction of the game’s tutorial, where I pick up gear and learn the basics of combat.
I’ll again point to Fallout for the quickest analogy of the game’s battle systems. Encounters are either started by opponents or by the player, changing the real time movement of the world into a turn-based one. The first real mission I was given led me into some underground tunnels, a perfect habitat for- you guessed it- rats. Big rats, in Underrail’s case. Once combat begins, a meter on the right pops up, dictating action points and movements points. Attacking, reloading, using an item- generally anything but moving- eats up action points, with each action taking up a varying amount of points. Movement points determine how much you can move, though action points can also be used for movement. The game draws a movement line during combat that changes color based on what points you’re using up and weapons all say how many action points they’ll use as well, making interpreting the system extremely easy. Players can also use special abilities gained either from skills or feats. My particular character used an aimed shot that took up extra action points but had a higher critical hit chance, and then blasted those rodents with an metathermic ice attack that ate up some psi points.
While guns are all well and good, there’s always less violent means. Nowhere was this highlighted more than in a later mission that had my character maneuvering through an enemy packed laboratory filled with particularly tough robot sentries and cameras. Combining my high sneak and lockpicking skill, I was able to open up new paths and accomplish objectives.
Mechanically, Underrail is as sound as can be. Even with my fairly limited experience with the cRPGs that the game is borrowing from, I was able to immediately grasp most everything about the game. The use of older mechanics couched in some modern conventions is well done. While the lack of a map system and enemy highlighting during combat did give me troubles, the fact that the game is in alpha and not complete lets me excuse those bumps in what was an overall great experience. My only earnest complaint would be with the game’s narrative. One of the things that made Arcanum, Fallout, and Planescape: Torment so great was how strongly they distinguished themselves thematically; Underrail has yet to do that. NPCs speak plainly and are quite clearly quest givers instead of characters. I’ll let the blandness slip by due to the game’s early state, but I hope it’s something that gets improved as the game nears a full release.
Underrail is clearly a love letter to a style of game that existed all too briefly. While it isn’t doing anything ingenious with the mechanics its paying respect to, it’s sprinkling of modernism onto them gives them a freshness that’s much appreciated. It’s a game with a lot potential. Let’s hope it fulfills it.