Thursday, April 19, 2018


I want to like this game, I really do, but its underlying expertise is just snowed under in too many layers of awkward, amateurish fumbling. As a case in point, take the song-and-dance you need to perform to even vendor any loot:

NPC vendors' demands for various items are limited and changing. This would be great, except there's no way to know what those demands are at any one time. This is not a multiplayer game where you can get a price check on phenolic composites in the next constellation from another player. Also, the vendors are all in separate zones. Also, your inventory's limited, so you can't just load everything you think you might sell and do your rounds. You have to go back and forth between your stash and each NPC, checking current demand then going back to grab three or four items to sell, then zoning again to sell them. Do this several times over, through at least two loading screens at a time, after every quest.

UnderRail is a Fallout copycat. We've been getting a lot of those recently, mostly from Fallout's own former developers, which is fine. Fallout should have been much more of a trendsetter than it was in its own time. Unfortunately, would-be copycats tend to zero in on a few superficial details like the setting or action points or weapon reloading and ignore how these meshed together. UnderRail actually contains an impressive number of features which larger developers refuse to implement. Individually, each of these features can even be said to work. The main issue concerns one of my favorite topics revisited year after year here in my little den: world building.
UnderRail has none, either from a storytelling or level design perspective.
Oh look... rats. Rats which are also dogs, because that makes them more interesting? Then later you also run into actual, regular dogs, for extra redundancy. And I can hit them with my single-target magic missile psychic skill, which stuns, or a bouncing magic missile skill which stuns its first target. Your second destination is called Junktown, a territory disputed by two gangs of lawless thugs. Will you have to run missions between them? Possibly! The entire adventure takes place in caves, with such distinguishing names as "lower caves" or "upper caves" or just to change things up a bit "lower passages" each subdivided into a dozen little maps in which you'll meet a cluster of enemies.

Now, the basic ideas here are solid:
A stat / skill system with synergies and advancement through exploration, not killing. Crafting, sneaking, vent crawling, status effects, ammunition, durability loss, pocket-picking, lock-picking, all those golden oldies are included.

Unfortunately, the whole thing stumbles into Arcanum levels of frustration. To re-iterate my comment about Icewind Dale's difficulty, tough enemies are fine as long as they don't also ship in swarms. Then, difficulty turns into a grind. UnderRail has you fighting alone against groups of enemies, which makes those aforementioned status effects hideously overpowered. Stuns are perfectly valid in group-based RPGs inspired by Baldur's Gate (just means shifting some more weight onto your remaining party members) but for a solo adventure, getting stunned for a round means skipping a round. No options. Amateurish implementation.

In fact the whole combat system seems completely unmanageable without grenade-like consumables to whittle down and separate NPCs to avoid getting zerged. Otherwise, you'll easily get knocked out in the first round of combat without ever firing a shot. The fact that most cleared maps tend to respawn only multiplies this frustration, especially as your character advancement depends on exploration, meaning repeatedly crossing hub maps in search of that last exp point. The game as a whole appears to depend on foreknowledge of what skills you'll need and where. Lockpicking requirements and enemy difficulty jump by at least two-fold between maps. Crafting skills are pointless unless you know you'll have access to the appropriate materials.

All of this might have been mitigated by some inspired map-making and storytelling, but UnderRail fails most by being an aimless grind. LotRO makes a good counterpoint, as it is itself a much more mindless grind (being a WoW-clone) but its level design has consistently stood out. You're always treated to sweeping vistas, foreshadowing and nostalgic looks back at your own path. UnderRail seems to consist of exactly two tilesets. Even that might have been salvaged by some clever arrangement, by some sense of escalation or progress. Instead, most of its maps may as well be ten-by-ten rooms.

The storytelling is, if anything, worse. You arrive at a station. You're given task after task with only the vaguest sense of either present or past context. Given the mutants and undergound living arrangements, presumably there was some kind of nuclear war, not that it's ever clarified. There's a "protectorate" and some stations which function as independent militias, but flavor text and backstory are otherwise conspicuously missing. First you're sent into some caves to the north, then some caves to the west, then some caves to the south. Enemies get tougher with rare warning and you spend half your time zoning back and forth between the painfully small map segments trying to figure out which way to go.

It should be a given feature of game development that games need to be developed, and UnderRail simply was not.

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