Video: The latest trailer for Underworld Ascendant
Using a physics engine to throw a box at an animated skeleton's head isn't a particularly exciting or new idea, but it's being presented as an exemplary expression of player freedom in Underworld Ascendant. You can also put out torches with water arrows to better stay hidden, or build magic bridges out of the weird abundance of boxes lying around the Stygian Abyss.
It's the same assortment of simple chemistry and physics magic we've been performing in games since Half-Life 2 made boxes cool. But for all the talk OtherSide Entertainment's marketing has generated about how Underworld Ascendant will move the immersive sim genre forward, I was surprised by how dated and clumsy it feels in practice.
Set in the same universe as the Ultima Underworld games Ascendant is attempting to build on, you play as a nameless Avatar transported into the underworld. Rather than spend time designing a massive open world, OtherSide is opting for bespoke, dense dungeons filled with clockwork systems working in step with classic fantasy creatures. A bright spectre patrolled the small area I played through, guarding a magic artifact hidden somewhere within. Stealth and water arrows kept me out of its sight, but on a high ridge bordering the area, a plant creature with sharp flailing mandibles stood in my way. A simple petrification spell let me get by with all the hair on my head. Still, smaller skeleton warriors wandered all around, denying easy access to my goal.
With all the components of a fantasy dungeon present, I tried cooking up creative solutions and power combinations in my mind. To kill a given skeleton, I could light the trail of mucus behind a giant cave slug on fire at just the right time, shoot out the rope holding up a precariously hung chandelier just as the skeleton passes under, bash them on the head with a thrown box several times over… or just shoot them in the face with arrows, which proved much more efficient. The choice was welcome, but putting in extra effort for a 'clever' kill never proved necessary in the early stage I played.
I'm sure I would've been more creative if the basic moves and interactions weren't so awkward to begin with. The distance you crouch-slide is tied to momentum, and highly exaggerated. Short sprints away from baddies had me sliding far across the floor and into potential danger like I buttered up my cloak and mail beforehand. The ability to throw objects, a marquee feature, was so tricky in the tight tunnels and dense caverns that I never wanted to use it. Boxes were always getting caught on something just out of my field of view. Even the bow feels bad. Arrow damage is tied to mouse precision and a crude oscillating meter next to the crosshairs—a major distraction—rather than just quick, precise aim alone.
One spell whips up all the physics objects nearby to bash skeletons with, but in use the objects got caught on the environment, monsters, and each other in a glitchy tornado of boxes (so many boxes). It looked like the beginning of a terrible mistake in Garry's Mod, not the deft work of a wizard-warrior descending into the Stygian Abyss, and I didn't feel as though I had much control over the mess anyway. The role-playing curtain pulled back to reveal the videogame often in such a short demo.
Ascendant is likely to leave immersive sims exactly where they were. That's fine, but what's left is a 3D homage to Ultima Underworld stripped of the theatrics and imagination required to convincingly roleplay a character, a physics-based puzzle game wrapped in a cliched cartoon fantasy template with some neat tools and clever uses for them. Even so, I'm not sold on its world, the novelty of its toolset, or simply how its most basic actions feel to control. OtherSide's ambition is clear, but Ascendant just doesn't feel ready to be released anytime soon. If it has to be, I hope it at least manages to be an obtuse, messy game with interesting enough level design and skill combinations to hold it all together.