The Kickstarter fad of the early 2010s was ostensibly predicated on two big concepts. The first was the idea that publishers are inherently evil, that they were greedy fat cats who were holding back poor innocent developers. The second was that certain genres and styles of game were too risky for the modern industry, meaning we’d never see any more adventure games, for example, unless we were willing to open up our wallets and give directly. Years of crowdfunding failures and a general sense of fatigue as seemingly every indie developer held out their hand has led to the fad abating over time, of course, and even seemingly unbeatable campaigns like Project Rap Rabbit have found themselves short of their goals.
As for the games themselves? Well, they’ve mostly been hit and miss. Some crowdfunded darlings have been fantastic, such as Pillars of Eternity’s mimicry of Baldur’s Gate, for instance, while others have been less than ideal, like Mighty No. 9‘s embarrassing attempt at aping Mega Man. Where, then, does legendary developer Warren Spector’s Underworld Ascendant fall on the scale? What does nearly $1 million in crowdfunded money get you? Is it really a successor to the throne held by classic titles like Ultima Underworld and Arx Fatalis? Uh…well…
Okay, so you’ve been summoned to the Underworld to deal with the demon king Typhon. You’ve been chosen for your adaptability and intelligence as much as your valor, because it’s going to take a little thinking outside the box to get through the trials facing you. Typhon, for his part, doesn’t think you can do it, and he’s going to tell you as much while you search for the keys you need to confront and defeat him. As you proceed through the Underworld, you’ll meet various fantasy races, murder some of them, work with others, avoid traps and find treasure. All the while, you’re intended to develop and implement your own way to play, relying on your intuition to proceed.
That’s…well, that’s all kind of theoretical at this point. If you’re a games enthusiast of a certain age there’s a fair chance you’ve played Half-Life 2. When that game launched it was a bit of a tour de force of what could be done in the modern age of games. Objects behaved as they should! Physics mattered! Underworld Ascendant takes a lot of lessons from that game and they make up the majority of the gameplay here.
Unfortunately, Half-Life 2 came out in 2004. 14 years later, futzing about with physics is somewhat less impressive. Many of Underworld Ascendant’s puzzles come off as almost condescending. See a locked wooden door? Set something nearby on fire and burn it open! That’s cute once, but after that you’re going to need to spice things up a little to keep things interesting, and while eventually Ascendant does mix things up it rarely feels especially cerebral. What’s more, Ascendant’s floaty controls make the box-stacking and platforming it loves so much feel a little less than satisfying; that box-stacking in particular is a pain in the butt of ungodly proportions because your dude just does not want to stand still on top of things. It comes off more as something like the boot-focused action-RPG Dark Messiah of Might and Magic rather than the immersive and thought-provoking Ultima Underworld.
Okay, so the puzzles – the core concept of this first-person puzzle-focused RPG – are a little iffy. What else have we got? Well, there’s combat in melee, ranged and magical form. Let’s not talk too much about the melee, which tends to feel a bit like beating on plastic with a foam noodle. Ranged combat with a bow is a little more enjoyable, especially since your best option is often just using the bow to avoid combat altogether by putting out lights with Thief-esque Water Arrows. Magic uses a unique spell customization system and is probably the most enjoyable means of dealing directly with enemies. You gain skill points as you proceed through the game and these can be spent to customize your character to your liking, so you can deal with as much or as little of each system as you’d like.
Just be careful; saving in Ascendant uses a strange psuedo-checkpoint-based save system rather than allowing you to save anywhere, so dying in your attempt to vanquish enemies or set traps may result in a significant amount of backtracking. You’d better not even consider quitting the game mid-mission.
Honestly, none of this is the recipe for a bad game. Average, perhaps, but not bad. Ascendant falls on its face from a technical standpoint, though, as bugs and glitches abound. As early as twenty minutes in, for instance, I was running into chunks of the world that just hadn’t been textured, allowing you to see into the world beyond. You can fall through the world as well, of course, which is just fantastic given the aforementioned goofy save system. It’s not even a fantastic-looking game, but the graphical errors really push it beyond the pale. Ascendant was thrown together by a small team, sure, but it clearly wasn’t ready for prime time and it might be months before enough patches are released to bring it to that point.
All that said, Underworld Ascendant is a little difficult to recommend. The game touts its willingness to allow the player to improvise, to the point where it’s almost smug about it, but much of what’s supposedly new and unique here has been done in better and more interesting ways elsewhere. Between that, the bizarre save limitations and the many, many bugs and graphical glitches, it’s safe to say Underworld Ascendant needs a few more months in the oven. Give it a second look once more patches have hit.