Underrail Preview

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Independent
Developer:StygSoft
Release Date:2015-12-18
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Isometric
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
Note: this preview is based on the v0.1.9.1 alpha build of the title currently available on Steam Early Access. At this stage the game is still incomplete and the game systems are likely to still go through many revisions, so keep that in mind while reading the preview.

At first glance, it would be easy enough to mistake Underrail for an unofficial Fallout sequel. Both Fallout and Underrail are turn-based post-apocalyptic RPGs that put you in the shoes of a single character of your own creation who can specialize in many different skills, from bludgeoning mutants with a hammer, to stealing, to the fine arts of diplomacy. And the similarities don't stop there, given that most quests are designed to allow for different approaches, the most common ones being stealth and combat.

Look beyond the obvious homages to Interplay's masterpiece though, and you'll find hints of titles like Metro 2033 (the underground post-apocalyptic setting), and even the original Deus Ex, the influence of which isn't immediately apparent, yet pervades every aspect of Underrail's gameplay, from skill usage to the level design. Basically, Underrail is a game that wears its influences on its sleeve and tries to recapture the brilliance of an era of gaming that ended almost unceremoniously, and that only now is seemingly coming back. Will Underrail be among the first of these newer RPG titles to live up to its promises?

While the game is still unfinished and there's much work ahead for Stygian Software (a name behind which hides one-man-band developer Dejan Radisic), I'd be willing to give it a tentative yes. Underrail might lack the strong personality and writing of classics like Fallout and Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura, but makes up for it with some impressive system design, which feels like a natural evolution of its spiritual forebears.

Writing and Setting

While there are many things Underrail does right, writing is not one of them. Its post-apocalyptic setting is a sci-fi pastiche that includes everything from robots to psychic abilities, yet never finds a voice, and lacks in surprises and charm. A lack of originality can easily be forgiven, especially in the increasingly crowded arena of post-apocalyptic fiction, but a lack of interesting elements is more difficult to swallow. The characters that populate the world don't fare much better: the NPCs don't say much of interest, and what little they do say is exposed in the same neutral personality-less voice, though at least they do say it concisely and clearly, which is better than nothing.

Plot-wise, the premise is simple enough: after an unspecified apocalypse humanity has been forced to go underground, in the complex known as Underrail. As a newcomer to South Gate Station, one of the major stations in the southern portion of Lower Underrail, you're tasked with a series of mission by your superiors, in light of a recent earthquake that blocked many underground passages that were previously used by the community. While the multitude of missions you're assigned to during the main quest works from a pure game design perspective, it doesn't seem to build up to an end point or explore any theme in depth, and ends up feeling like a collection of loosely related side quests. There's some foreshadowing of future political conflicts involving a faction called the Protectorate and the United Stations it protects, and hints that a darker power is at work, but no sense of a story arc yet.

Luckily, given that Underrail doesn't feature any voice acting, even a dramatic overhaul of its dialogue shouldn't be out of the question, and there's even been some talk of hiring writers on the official forums, though nothing is confirmed as of now. The game is still far away from completion, so hopefully when I'll get back to it (and I most assuredly will) the narrative of the title will be closer to my quality expectations.
Character Progression and Itemization

Spend more than 10 minutes or so with Underrail though, and there's a very good chance you'll learn to completely ignore its uninspired writing and focus on what it actually does right. There are many things I remember from the 16 hours or so (counted by Steam) I spent with the alpha: a particularly tense encounter with acid-spitting mutant dogs where I had to exploit every trick I had, from my psionic abilities to throwing nets, and barely survived anyway; a frantic run through a couple of sentry turrets that were able to instantly spot me while I was sneaking, depriving me of a crucial skill which otherwise got me out of many difficult situations (little did I know that I could have bypassed them using an alternative passage!); the times I've spent stealing from unsuspecting citizens' apartments to finance my troubled quest for an Armadillo class drill rotor circuit board. It brought back memories of my time with the original Fallout, which was certainly appreciated.

Let's start with the basics: to start an Underrail playthrough you have to build a character, as there are no pre-made options available to help newcomers. You'll find yourself dividing points between its six main stats, called here "base abilities", which affect both skills proper and secondary stats: Strength (which affects melee skills), Dexterity (thieving abilities, throwing, melee criticals), Agility (dodge, movement, stealth), Constituion (hit points and the various resistances), Perception (your aim and the ability to spot hidden creatures and objects), Will (psi and social skills) and Intelligence (scientific disciplines such as hacking). Differently from Fallout and similarly to D&D, you'll get one point to raise your base abilities every 4 levels, which will also give you the chance to raise them beyond their initial cap of 10.

The rest of your character creation time will be divided between distributing points into skills and choosing feats, which work similarly to Fallout's perks and Dungeons & Dragons 3.5's feats. Your start with a pool of 120 points to distribute between the various skills, though you can't put more than 15 into any of them to start. At every level up you get 40 skill points and this cap raises by 5, meaning the average player is likely to specialize into 8 skills and keep putting points into them, but there's no effective obligation to do so, and I can certainly attest to that. By the end of my time with the alpha I had learned how to pickpocket unsuspecting citizens and intimidate gangers into submission, something I'd have no chance of doing with my initial skill setup.

There's a total of 22 skills, divided between Offense, Defense, Subterfuge, Technology, Psi and Social: Guns, Throwing, Crossbow, Melee; Dodge (used against melee and traps), Evasion (used against ranged attacks and area of effect); Stealth, Hacking, Lockpicking, Pickpocketing, Traps; Mechanics, Electronics, Chemistry, Biology, Tailoring (all used for crafting); Thought Control, Psychokinesis, Methatermics; Persuasion, Intimidation, Mercantile. With a few exceptions (Persuasion was checked only a couple of times during the alpha, and Dodge and Evasion feel underpowered as of now) the skills are actually useful and not trap choices, and I have to admit I found myself wishing I had put at least a few points into the ones I had ignored while exploring some of the title's deadly hi-tech ruins. Skill synergies (a bonus derived by a percentage of the points you have put in another skill; e.g. Dodge has a skill synergy with Evasion that amounts to 10%, meaning that if you have 0 points in dodge but 60 in Evasion, Dodge will get automatically raised to 6) help plug some of those expertise holes, but the benefits are too low to rely on them alone, and only really help when you're going for particularly easy skill checks.

Finally, as I already mentioned earlier, feats work more or less like you'd expect them to based on the last 10-15 years of RPG design: you get two at the start, with an additional choice available at every even level. There are also a few feats that you'll gain through in-game events, like Psi Empathy, which grants you the ability to learn psi abilities, and unlocks additional psi-related feats. Most feats consist of flat bonuses like additional abilities, more movement points, enhanced perception when hidden objects are concerned, etc., though a few also involve trade-offs (the chance to score criticals more often in exchange for the same for your enemies), and some even lock other feats out (Tranquility and Psychosis, two psi related feats, are mutually exclusive for example).

Equipment-wise, all characters start with a fairly weak leather armor and a gun (regardless of your starting skill, though, again, it's worth noting this is just an alpha and this is probably subject to change later down the line), some credits to buy more equipment and that's about it. I'd prefer if starting equipment was handled similarly to Arcanum, where you have a fixed amount of money and can choose what to buy before starting the game proper, but at least there are traders you can peruse before you start adventuring out of South Gate Station. Move beyond the starting area, though, and you'll quickly realize there's a huge variety of loot in Underrail: from batteries you can use to recharge technological gizmos and energy weapons, to scraps for crafting, to poisoned bolts for your crossbow, Underrail has just about everything. Items are weightless and your inventory is limitless, so there's not much decision-making involved in looting, but the presence of item durability and equipment encumbrance, plus skill and stat requirements, bonuses and maluses, makes sure you're never just going to equip the heaviest armor and weapon and call it a day. During the later stages of the alpha I felt like I had overcome the resource problems I met at the beginning of my playthrough, which didn't feel like a big thing in the grand scheme of things given the game's encounters and areas were hard enough without scarcity coming into play, but might warrant additional balance passes.
Not Just Combat

Moving into the gameplay proper, it's worth noting that Underrail is divided between turn-based battles and real-time non-combat play. Unless you're really trigger happy you're likely going to spend the bulk of your time playing in real-time, and most actions take a certain amount of time to perform here, dependent on your skill level and eventual additional feats. Carefully sneaking through mutants is tense by itself, but praying you manage to unlock a door before they spot you is really something else. It's worth noting that, aside from stealth, most skills don't involve nearly as much tactical play as combat, and are simply checked against a threshold value to determine whether you succeed or not. Some, like lockpicking and hacking, also use resources, but given these resources are only used when you're successful and the threshold values are shown to the player rather than obfuscated, you're never at risk of losing them without a corresponding gain (plenty of locked containers are actually empty, but even then you're still awarded experience points for the action).

I said previously that the game shows threshold values, but that's only a half-truth: locked doors (whether electronic or mechanical locks) show the threshold values, but dialogue checks don't, while hacking computers is handled through the dialogue interface and opts for a middle-ground solution where impossible tasks are grayed out but the threshold values for success are not shown. I have to admit I'm not convinced by this baroque and slightly overwrought solution, and would prefer threshold values to be either shown for every skill check or not shown at all. While I can at least understand why it's done that way for dialogue checks, given that knowing ahead of time whether you can pass one or not could be used to avoid possible negative consequences, I'd say that the fact that most players tend to reload in those situations means that this solution is mostly useless anyway.

The dialogue skills design in general seem far less interesting than the rest of the title: while even the addition of something as simple as a Deus Ex-like timer to actions can make a huge difference and shows an understanding of some of the problems of similar titles, dialogue is just made of binary checks. Furthermore, the bulk of these checks uses Intimidate, with only a few generally unimportant ones actually using Persuade (I encountered one single situation where Persuade felt useful, and even then it had to be used in tandem with Intimidate for optimal results), making it an objectively less valuable skill as a result. Possibly to make dialogue skills feel more significant, base abilities and other skills aren't used in dialogue with very few exceptions, but in the end the only result this achieves is that you'll rarely feel like your build is having a huge impact on your conversations. Speaking of tried-and-true design, crafting is handled in a pretty classic way: you find components as loot and, as long as you have the recipe (you'll find them as blueprints on USB disks) and a high enough skill, craft the item. It might not be innovative but it's a solid design and works in Underrail as it worked in dozens of other titles, though I have to admit I didn't dabble too much into it as I tend to avoid crafting activities in most titles.

Going back to stealth, Underrail feels more involving than your average RPG, though still highly stat-based. NPCs and creatures in general have indicators over their head showing how close they are to spotting you, and the higher your Stealth skill is and the more distant you are, the more difficult it will be for them to spot you. That said, most enemies will spot you fairly quickly, especially if you don't specialize in Stealth (and some will spot you automatically, like Auto-Turrets), so you'll find yourself relying on alternative passages like ventilation shafts (the game makes very liberal use of them, but they never feel like cheats for stealth characters, and sometimes even contain additional enemies), and various ways to obstruct the line of sight until you're close enough to make a run for your destination. Make a run for it might not be the best expression though, given your movement rate is significantly slowed down during stealth, and on top of that bumping into another creature makes it so that you are automatically spotted. While both decisions add more strategy and tension to stealth gameplay, they also make it a somewhat frustrating affair. Underrail maps tend to be a bit boxy and labyrinthine, and given that movement is strictly tile-based, you might find yourself bumping into creatures and people you really don't want to have anything to do with more often than you'd like. Add to that that most creatures don't seem to have clear movement patterns and patrol routes, and it'd be easy to forgive a player for abandoning a stealth build to go for a more straightforward cowboy-type. That said, Underrail's stealth is still a couple of notches above other efforts in the genre, and fairly entertaining in its own right even in this unpolished alpha version.

Before I get to the combat design of the title, I'd like to take the time to cover one final gripe I have with the otherwise laudable game design: its use, or rather, abuse of cooldowns. While I have no problems with cooldowns as a way of additionally balancing player options, Underrail feels like it goes a bit too far, with most special abilities and actions having some kind of cooldown attached in addition to their resource usage. Stealth comes with a cooldown that made me waste a significant amount of time, waiting alone in unpopulated ventilation shafts, just to be able to enter stealth again and leave for a populated area. Most of psi abilities have cooldowns in addition to using both psi points and action points. Even consumable have cooldowns attached, which seems like an admission on part of the developer that they're a bit too powerful in their current incarnation (and to be clear, consumables can still turn the tide of a battle even with their cooldowns stopping you from spamming them). I understand the intention, but it feels extremely artificial, especially in a game that takes pains to make sure your obstacles are integrated through the systems and that these systems reinforce the setting.
Combat Proper

I've already talked about some of the ancillary aspects of combat, but haven't dived into the system proper save for saying that it's turn-based, so allow me to get you up to speed. Underrail doesn't use an initiative or sequence system, and the party that starts the battle always gets the first move, granting it a tremendous advantage. Most of the enemies pack a serious punch, so, unless you can afford an armor with good damage resistance and threshold (and the best armors have fairly steep strength requirements too) there's a chance you might even die at the first turn. Simply put, even basic encounters are fairly hard and require a measure of strategy to be won.

While that sounds scary, you're given more than enough options to get through even the hardest encounter (assuming, of course, you have the right build in the first place). At every turn you're granted a number of movement points and action points, depending on your base abilities, talents, whether you're in or out of stealth, and a few other conditions. Movement points do what you expect them to and determine how far you can move during the turn, while action points are used for important actions like shooting, using items, equipping something, and using psi abilities. Should you want to move further than you'd be able to with your movement points, you can also consume some extra action points to do so. Weaker weapons and abilities tend to use less AP and use cheaper, more common resources, and on top of that tend to not have cooldowns but, given fights are generally short in length, the ratio between them and stronger, more expensive actions is not as skewed as you might be initially led to believe.

The game allows you to equip two weapons you might switch between at will and up to two utility items, which can be expanded to five depending on your equipment and talents. Utility items range from extremely powerful grenades to useful but highly situational throwing nets, and also encompass a series of traps. Meanwhile, consumables can easily be used without needing to be equipped anywhere, though the average player will likely want to keep them on the action bar to keep an eye on them. Using your consumable and utility items well in combat is essential: spraying and praying is a strategy that only really works with the basic critters you meet at the beginning, and even the relatively common bandits aren't easily dispatched that way.

Speaking of enemies, while there are talks of introducing even more devious ones and refining the AI on the forums, the current ensemble is already pretty varied, if not visually, then at least in terms of abilities. From bugs with psychic abilities, to stationary turrets, to spooky doppelgangers, to ye olde giant rats, Stygian Software has put together everything that was even vaguely appropriate for the setting to offer an interesting challenge. While the encounter design might not be as refined as in a purely combat-focused title, the simple fact that every monster has different resistances, abilities and immunities forces you to continually change your tactics and utilize your resources in creative ways.

Speaking of immunities and damage resistances, there are 7 damage types with their own specific resistance: mechanical is the most commonly used as it governs melee and ranged weapons, but there are also heat, cold, electricity, acid, energy and even bio damage types and resistances. The game also has a variety of status effects that get applied via special abilities, like fear, entanglement, stunned, etc. which mostly amount to debuffs and different ways to block movement.

As a final note, I've mentioned earlier that psi abilities use "Psi" as an additional resource, but didn't mention what it is. In short, Psi is the post-apocalyptic sci-fi equivalent of mana. Its total amount is determined by your Will stat and it doesn't regenerate, but it generally depletes significantly only over the span of several battles, and Psi Boosts (consumable that regenerate Psi) aren't at all uncommon. It's perfectly possible to make a psi-focused build, though not necessarily recommended due to the cooldowns attached to most abilities and the existence of critters that are highly resistant to this kind of attacks.
Level and Quest Design

About the only criticism I have for Underrail's quest design is that it didn't surprise me. The game covers all the bases, offering a variety of tasks, from saving hostages to stealing key cards in highly surveilled gambling dens, and the vast majority of these have at least a couple of possible solutions depending on your build, but there's nothing that quite jumps at you for its uniqueness, whether for narrative or design reasons.

That said, Underrail is decidedly at its best not when it has you running undoubtedly entertaining errands in its populated settlements, but when it sends you to desolate locations, and that's because its dungeon design is a fantastic hybrid of Fallout and Deus Ex. Every location has multiple entry and exit points, plenty of locked doors, containers, surveillance cameras, computers, trapped passageways and more. There's a wonderful sense of place to them too, an underlying logic that helps you forget the fact that you're dealing with the same repeated art assets over and over: see a camera and you're likely to find the surveillance monitors (which you can utilize, by the way) somewhere nearby, find traps and you're likely to find those who placed them, and so on and so forth. They're little details that are easy to overlook, but manage to greatly enhance the atmosphere of the game.

If I had to pick one location among the ones I visited during the alpha, I'd go with Depot A, in Junkyard, which I consider the crown jewel of the game. It's a wonderfully designed location, and incredibly challenging too: you'll find everything in it, from minefields to acid-spitting dogs, including one of the few NPCs with anything remotely interesting to say, but it also exemplifies how frustrating the game can occasionally become, especially for a non-optimized build. More than once I was forced to go back to the town's medic with the proverbial tail between my legs several times, but it only heightened my satisfaction when I was finally able to find the item I was looking for in it. Looking back at it, I'm not sure I'd want it to be further balanced, to see it become slightly smoother and more open to diverse builds: call it selfishness (or even Stockholm syndrome) but I've grown very fond of the place, and feel like other players should experience it like this, unmarred and unchanged, rough as it is. While it might seem insurmountable at first, it is, just as any other challenge the game poses, perfectly beatable with the right amount of patience, ingenuity and persistence.

Atmosphere

To be frank, Underrail looks about how you'd expect from a title developed by a single person who isn't an artist to look: environments are crude and same-y, characters and creatures animate weirdly, and the interface looks a tad ugly. While the images are never really difficult to read and the assets convey what they want to convey decently enough, this isn't a game I'd ever praise for its art style, especially after the bad first impression left by its title screen, a moody but nonetheless amateurish piece of art.

Sound-wise on the other hand, the game fares much better. While sound effects are limited and unimpressive, the few electronic tracks that make up the soundtrack hit all the right notes: there's just enough melody to be noticeable, but not enough to disrupt the cold and industrial atmosphere that permeates the title. In many ways, Underrail's soundtrack does a better job at communicating themes and creating a narrative than the title's dialogue and plot, and while that's in part due to the writing's deficiencies, I still feel that accomplishment deserves some serious praise.

Technical Considerations

For an alpha of an indie title, I have to say Underrail doesn't feel particularly unpolished. The game lacks some of the documentation a newcomer is likely going to need to figure out some of the most arcane functions of the interface, though at least for now the official forums and other online sourcesĀ are filling that gap. There are also precious few options at this time, with absolutely no difficulty options (I don't know if they're planned for later or if the game will take a "same for everyone" approach to balance), few graphical options (resolution and font size), and a few settings regarding the speed of turn-based combat.

The game crashed me a couple of times, and one dialogue tree was stuck in a loop where I could say I had completed a mission to a quest giver over and over and over, but aside from that I didn't encounter any bugs, though I can't vouch to the accuracy of the behind-the-scenes math since, to be perfectly honest, I didn't really have time to check the combat log in great detail.

Conclusions

Underrail's alpha wasn't anywhere close to perfect, as it should be abundantly clear by now, but still shows an immense amount of potential. The game is very entertaining even in this early and unpolished state, and, assuming something doesn't go very wrong during the last stretch of development, it should, at the very least, be as entertaining on release. Stygian Software's title tried to take the pen and paper aspirations of Fallout and Arcanum and a pinch of the simulational aspirations of the early 3d titles from Looking Glass Studios and Ion Storm, and added to them a great dose of ambition (again, it's worth noting that the game was, aside from some art, completely developed by one single person), so you'd be forgiven for being a bit skeptical about the results. And yet it works, and in light of the recent news of the financial success of the title on Steam, the real future is looking a lot brighter than the fiction of it that Underrail presents. Brighter than ever, in fact.