Underrail Preview

Eschalon: Book II

Release Date:2015-12-18
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Isometric
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
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.