Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Underrail Review

Underrail Review

   I n t r o d u c t i o n   

Stygian Software's Underrail (2015) is an isometric, turn-based RPG that takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting. Sound familiar?

To say that Underrail is heavily influenced by Fallout (1997) would be a major understatement. Basically everything about the game oozes the spirit of Interplay's ground-breaker. But Underrail manages to add lots of unique mechanics and content of its own to avoid being deemed a total rip-off; f.e, hacking, psionics and crafting similar to Troika's Arcanum (2001), in that you need to find blueprints (schematics in Arcanum) and various parts in order to craft the desired item.

There is no doubt in my mind that it will appeal to veterans of Fallout, but I can't see current gen gamers lasting long because there is no hand-holding or spoon-feeding, and there are plenty of opportunities to get in over your head. You can explore as you like but you'll probably have your ass handed to you by not building a semi-optimal character and not being prepared for what's coming by managing the limited resources wisely. Experience with Fallout is a great asset when playing Underrail. It is welcome that initial game difficulty seems to be high on Normal/Classic rules; for example, in my initial stages of experimentation I encountered two foes that weren't exactly push-overs. Here they are:

   F i r s t  S c e n a r i o   M ' l a n  R a t u l a   

This guy is a drifter hanging out in one of the southgate outposts of Lower Underrail, which you have reason to explore as part of the first quest that requires you to retake the outposts. The delicious "tactic" you could avail of against non-hostiles in Fallout is not an option here; namely, simply walk up to them, enter combat mode, and shoot them from point blank right between the eyes. You can't even force-attack this guy because hostilities can only be instigated via dialogue [1]. There is also an Intimidate check which I presume allows for a peaceful solution, but I could not pass it due to having dumped my Will stat in chargen.

So yeah, I was forced to announce my intention to take him out in a ranged duel, fair and square. Now, the problem is that you're likely only second level at this early stage in the proceedings. I built my character as the classic Fallout gunslinger and was wielding the 5mm Hawker, the shitty starter pistol given to me by Lucas in the armory. Now, M'lan Ratula fires a Zephyr crossbow loaded with bolts packed with ampules of potent poison that inflict 7 bio dmg per turn - that stacks. He can crit for 40+ dmg and take me out in a single turn. His two rathound pets can crit for 20+. They also get the Pack Hunting synergy feat for attacking me at the same time (dmg +20%).

Luckily my Agility was high and I consistently won the Initiative; else, I would have been in for a world of hurt. And thank god I selected the Aimed Shot feat only moments earlier, too; else, my crit chance would have been a pitiful 7% and I'd likely only reduce him to 40% of health, after which he'd completely heal on his turn and then follow up with his own Aimed Shot -> game over. Ergo, Initiative and Aimed Shot was everything to me [2].

So yeah, I opened up with an Aimed Shot and then fired from the hip a couple more times to drop M'lan Ratula before he could raise his crossbow. Sweet. Then, all I had to do was mop up the smelly rathounds. They gnawed a bit at my ankles but it was nothing health hypos and bandages couldn't fix when all was said and done.

Of course, this assumes you are not low on ammo or other consumables and that the durability of your weapon is not degraded, as many rathounds must be dispatched en route to this point. So yeah, some players may have to backtrack to base before they can push through and succeed here.

This encounter marks the point at which Underrail engaged me by appealing to my love for touch-and-go RNG at the early levels. Before this point things were a bit ho-hum (I did have to work out that I needed lockpicks and a haxxor with a lithium battery for utility purposes, so that kept me going to this point.)

[1] Actually, you can exit from the initial forced dialogue, walk up to him, and force-attack from point blank via the Quick Invoker (F-key). It's a lil' odd that you can't do that from the appropriate Quickbar icon, but there you have it.

[2] Note that with a H1 Grenade and moderate investment in Throwing you can make short work of him and his hounds.

   S e c o n d  S c e n a r i o    A z u r i d a e   

I hate these little bastards! Their Neural Overload sucks (electro dmg) and their Psionic Synergy in groups gives them added psi abilities such as Cryokinesis (chill) and Telekinetic Punch (stun), which suck even more. Such disablers were hard for me to resist/endure at this point, and dumped Will didn't help my resolve

You have to get past several Azuridae in the sprawling mushroom caves en route to a guy named Newton, whose ass you have to save from the overrun base at the cove. These bastard bugs owned my squishy fourth level sharpshooter over and over when I first encountered them on the far side of a bridge. I couldn't reliably sneak past them so I ended up taking them out in ones and twos. Thankfully I had some cash in my pocket at this point and was able to upgrade from the 5mm Hawker to the 7.62mm version; otherwise, no chance. Even with a higher calibre weapon I still had to consume a fair few health hypos to keep myself on my feet and firing away. Aimed Shot and high Initiative (or just opening up from stealth) were again indispensable. Anyway, at the end of this ordeal I said "Fuck you!" to each of their corpses as I looted them for bits and bobs. So yeah, pretty satisfying to be done with them.

I'm currently enjoying the challenge posed by stalkers down in the under-passages maze and the sentry bots in the GMS compound, so congrats to Stygian Software for keeping the interest levels up for Fallout veterans.

   C o m p a r i s o n s  w i t h  F a l l o u t   

Just a few comparisons with Fallout (based on three hours of play):

• With the exception of Fallout 2's infamous Temple of Trials (covered by me here), the initial combat scenarios of Underrail seem to be more difficult. In fact, quite brutal as I've described above. It also helps that in the Fallouts you can pick up Ian and Sulik to help you through the early stages of fighting rats and bugs. And they're not slouches in the mid-game either, despite their dumb AI. It will be interesting to see if the brutal difficulty of Underrail is maintained by mid-game (I have my doubts).

• The visuals employed in Underrail are commendable, from its spartan interface to its combat animations and backdrops, but this is nowhere near the level of Fallout artistry and graphic design genius that came out of Black Isle a full two decades ago. Don't expect awesome death anims and talking heads. Don't expect to see item icons that are artwork in themselves. And don't expect to see your character climbing up ladders. That sort of thing is the province of Fallout and Jagged Alliance 2 only. Underrail is an indie game, and it shows.

• Likewise, the music and sound effects are simple and serviceable. The main thing is: they don't annoy me. But again, don't expect Fallout OST and SFX quality.

   T h e  U s e r  I n t e r f a c e   

Do ppl find treatment of UIs boring? Well, I don't care. I'm a bit of a UI connoisseur and I expect them to be top-notch in RPGs that want to be taken srsly. Want to put a console UI in your "spiritual successor" to Planescape: Torment? Expect to get shat on.

Underrail's UI is spartan, functional and EZ to get to grips with. It takes advantage of many mod cons such as Quick Invoker, Tabs in the Character Sheet and Combat Stats window, mouse-over floating text-bubbles, Tab-key highlighting and the ability to customize your Quickbar with items and feats (drag n drop). However, the Quickbar should have been larger in size and there is no map-screen like in Fallout. That said, you can scroll your playing field area-wide, unlike in Fallout

Still, Fallout's interface is more tactile and far more work has gone into its presentation. It also evokes the post-apocalyptic vibe more than this standard, current gen UI that we see in our everyday lives on smartphones and tablets.

Here is the Character Sheet comparison (note how on the left no screen space is wasted and the info is compacted yet still EZ to read):

Here is the Inventory and combat stats mode comparison (note the beautifully drawn item icons on the left, and the tiny, completely forgettable ones on the right):

And here is Skilldex vs. Quick Invoker.

I rest my case: pro vs. indie.

   A  F e w  O t h e r  T h i n g s  T h a t  S p r i n g  t o  M i n d   

Loadtimes. Yes, Fallout loadtimes are instant on my laptop but Underrail only takes several seconds. I turned off autosave because it more than doubles the area-change wait. It just makes backtracking less tedious. I don't recommend doing this unless you are a disciplined manual saver like I am; i.e, you have been in the habit of making regular, named saves at intervals for the last two decades.

Walkspeed. Well, the regular readership of lilura1 will know that I don't like slowly plodding around game-worlds after playing the classic RPGs in the late-90s that let me whiz about from one segment of CONTENT to the next. Unfortunately, Underrail is a "walk only" game and the lead dev refused to increase the walkspeed at the request of his community. That's fine; it's your baby. Just expect people to continue voicing their displeasure until you cater to your audience. Baldur's Gate (1998) ran at a max of 60 AI updates per secound and Fallout (1997) and Arcanum (2001) offered an Always Run option. Arcanum went further and made the Dexterity stat pump movement speed, and various stats in Jagged Alliance 2 (1999) worked together to pump it.

Below: Oh, look. Older games than Underrail let you run. But more than 10 years subsequent to them, Underrail doesn't. How clueless can you get?

So now players have to use an external program or Cheat Engine to speedhack their game if they want to move at a rate above a snail's pace. A pity. This will definitely adversely affect my desire for replays, just as it does with other "plodders".

• The slick animations and color schemes in Underrail at times remind me of Flashback, a cinematic platform game released to critical acclaim in 1992.

• I like how, aside from its obvious importance to gunslingers, Perception allows you to discover hidden objects of interest; f.e, a secret passage or a vault built into a wall.

Underrail is not a resource hog like lolUnity RPGs are (Tyranny, Torment, Shadowrun, Pillars of Eternity). Framerate is good on my crappy laptop despite having lots of background operations running. Alt-tabbing is quick even at non-Desktop resolutions. Game hasn't CTD'd or threatened to hang once. Rock solid stability. Can't say that about lolUnity.

• Ventilation shafts are a cool concept. You can take a peek through them to see what's on the other side of a wall, or with an Omni-tool you can open them and then climb inside and make your way through an area like that, looking down at the aggro you're bypassing beneath you (Deus Ex-ey).

• My female character has been referred to as male more than once.

• "They call me Adahn". Nice reference to PS:T, thar.

• Footstep sounds would have been nice. Yeah, I know, Fallout didn't have them but Jagged Alliance 2 did and they added a lot to the realism and contrasted with stealth mode (which was silent).

• Likewise, remember that delightful level-up sound that Fallout had? Well, Underrail has no sound at all when you gain a level. A sound for quest completion would be nice, too (as in Fallout).

• It would have been nice to be able to fire through panes of glass. Again, only the province of Jagged Alliance 2: the best turn-based tactical game evah.

• No companions is just sad. Fallout gave you indirect control of several companions, Fallout 2 gave you increased indirect control of several companions, and JA2 gave you direct and full control of 18 mercs. You could, for example, have all 18 mercs in one zone or have each of them in separate zones anywhere in the game-world. GOAT.

   E o P   


  1. Everything seems really good from what I've read and seen... but the "no companions" thing is a drawback to me. Pity. I know that Fallout 1/2 companions aren't always that useful, still I can't play without them.

    1. Yep, Ian is useful in the early stages of Fallout, such as when clearing out the scorpion cave, Vault 15 and even the raiders when you're trying to save Tandi. It's fun to try and keep them alive towards the end-game, too. And it's always sad when Dogmeat dies.

      Sulik, Vic and Cassidy can be amazing in Fallout 2. Sulik can get off four shots with the .223, and Vic and Cassidy can get off two gauss rifle shots. An extra 8 attacks that inflict 30-40 dmg each is a huge boost against big, tough mobs.

      And yeah, companions add a lil' flavor, too. I always take them unless I'm doing a solo experiment.

    2. Well Tycho was pretty good too... if I am right he's the toughest companion in F1. And yes I kept them until the end, included the useless Katja.

      Hm I usually used Sulik as a melee fighter...but yes Vic and Cassidy were great. Not as dangerous as Marcus.

      And I also loved Arcanum companions despite the hindrance that in these games you can't develope a decent strategy thanks to the dubbio AI!

    3. Sulik is good with Super Sledge, I guess. But I always found four shots with the .223 more effective. Marcus has a habit of wiping out the party so I never used him much.

    4. Really? I gave him a gun but he didn't seem to be accurate...but I tried only once. Marcus is terrible as anyone whore wields an automatic weapon! Still more useful than Myron, the ghoul or the two "romance options". But hey, I just don't like going solo.
      (In Arcanum my companions destroyed everyone in the last dungeon. I felt
      almost useless)

    5. Even Sulik can shoot ppl from long range with the .223. Maybe your Sulik just hadn't leveled high enough?

      Lenny is all but useless. I think he got one attack every other round with the M29 speed-loader. Still, it's funny to watch him shamble around and take some bullets (he can actually tank ok in the mid-game).

      I don't remember much about the combat ability of Arcanum companions (my last few runs were years ago, and solos).

    6. I gave him the submachine gun. Bad idea... anyway yes he was still at a low level.

      Well Lenny is tough, sure. But it annoyed me a lot that I had to left him outside VC every time! :/

      Last time I played Arcanum I used a charismatic character. I think I had Virgil, Magnus, Raven, the false orc and the dwarven-king-heremit. I also took Arronax in the end, I can't remember if I just added him or he replaced on of the others.

      For utility, probably Sogg and Chukka (the ogres) are a better choice, but when you have quantity you don't need quality (they are still decent).

    7. I remember giving Ian an SMG in Fallout and he just kept blowing a hole in my back with burst-mode. So yeah, from that point on companions only got single-shot pistols, shotguns and rifles (gauss).

    8. Marcus is amazing, it's a shame not to use him, i remember using him successfully back in the days, you just need to adapt, first, no CC or you need to finish them off, stay away from enemy's groups and then, watch them die, it's a lot of fun to watch him blow everything with a rocket launcher or cut them in two parts with a minigun.

      Plus, walking around with your personal SM bodyguard.

      I didn't replay it yet but i guess, like in FO1, you can "fully" control your companions in FO2 now, making him the best mutant for the job.

  2. X-Com lets you shoot through glass too. Always a nice touch. I'm a sucker for Steampunk, and this sounds good.

    1. The original X-Com? I can't remember. Jagged Alliance 2 had destructible environments, too. Not bad for 1999. Still holds up without mods, too.

  3. Arg. Don't know why I said the last. I know it's not. :P Though I'm a sucker for post-apoc too. hehe.

    1. Yeah, it's more cyberpunk/post-apocalyptic.

  4. I tried this game, but not being able to sell my "loot" was kind of a let down...

    Btw, if you like this game, try out shadowrun.. the dragonfall is easily one of the best stories ive played..

    1. You can sell your loot. Just different vendors will take different things from you. So you have to find a vendor interested in what you have to sell.

    2. While travelling is an issue, you need to find the right vendor whom will buy you 2-5 articles (in quantity !)

      The trading system is a joke and the crafting system too because you need to hoard things you can't carry.

      You don't have any companion, travelling is a pain, as i already stated.

      It tried too hard to create more builds (psionic and chemist) we didn't need while not delivering what we really need.

      This game is going to be forgotten soon enough, luckily, nice try though.


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