Underworld: Ascendant review – a strangely essential development disaster

Nov
29

Underworld: Ascendant review – a strangely essential development disaster

Underworld: Ascendant is positively paranoid that you’ll forget that it’s an immersive sim. A crowd-funded successor to Looking Glass Studios’ landmark RPG Ultima Underworld, created with the input of Looking Glass veterans, its dialogue is full of allusions to the genre’s ethos of player improvisation using flexible tools. “Experimentation is advised,” remarks Cabirus, the papier-mâché beard in a dressing gown who serves as your mentor on the quest to defeat Typhon, an escaped demon king. Later: “only the adaptable prosper”. Elsewhere: “I seek not to teach you, but to make you think.”

The game’s relentless advertising of its own creative inheritance soon grows annoying, and not just because in practice, it’s more interested in channeling Ultima’s light-fingered stablemate Thief. Looking Glass closed down almost 20 years ago, and its legacy is everywhere, reaching far beyond self-declared immersive sims to any number of shooters, open worlders and more linear RPGs. To preach the importance of methods over results in the wake of, say, Hitman: Blood Money or Heat Signature feels like your dad expecting a round of applause for explaining the plot of The Matrix. In any case, Ascendant’s immersive sim premise doesn’t really flatter it, because it means that you’re actively looking for breakages and limitations you can take advantage of, and there are ever so many of them to find. It’s certainly a game about experimentation in the sense that a lot of it doesn’t work.

The game’s current bug list is so grand, varied and hideous it deserves to be bound in crocodile skin and hidden away in a mausoleum, as a kind of Necronomicon for QA testers. There are crumbling citadels that are invisible from certain angles, and lakes with two surfaces, one glimmering metres below the other. There are blade traps that don’t just stop moving but vanish when you pull a lever, though you can still hear them rattling away. Rooftops that turn to vapour underfoot, trapping you inside a backdrop, and dangling chains that bunch as you climb like constipated snakes. Enemies who literally couldn’t beat a flight of stairs, and flights of stairs that have been so hastily cobbled together you can see the gaps between sections. It’s not, all told, a game you should play if the slightest glitching texture sends you screaming for your pitchfork, and while Ascendant does manage a few unusual ideas within the handworn parameters of a dark fantasy role-player, most are as wayward as their execution is tortuous.

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