Developer: Stygian Software
Release Date: 18 December, 2015
By Chris Picone, 16 December 2016
Underrail is the first release by indie developer Stygian Software. It is an isometric roleplaying game I hesitate to say that it is modelled after Fallout because, although the inspiration is clear, the game does well enough in creating its own system, setting, and feel, that I don’t think reducing it to being “yet another Fallout clone” is in any way fair. The game takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where the surface is lethal and so what is left of humanity lives underground. Old train stations are the new founts of civilization, which are connected to each other by a combination of the subway, the maintenance tunnels beneath the subway, and an extensive cavern system. Underrail was modelled after the 90s classic RPGs, and doesn’t disappoint. Why would anyone make a new 90s RPG in the late 2000s? Simple: 90s isometric RPGs were amazing, and many of us still miss them. I’m certainly grateful for this new addition.
You play as one of the survivors, newly recruited to the South Gate Station community. Survival in the harsh underground environment is a constant struggle; belonging to a community is quite a privilege, and one not available to just anybody. So when the station is struck by an earthquake, you are only too eager to help the community and prove your worth in doing so. In addition, the story takes place during a political upheaval as the many factions of the underrail strive to dominate the new world, a conflict in which you quickly find yourself swept up in.
Underrail’s game system was modelled after the 90s classics, and it comes with looks to match. The resolution is significantly higher than actual 90s games, however, so the graphics are quite tolerable. I actually like the look of the game but I can’t tell if it’s just nostalgia.
The music is functional; it doesn’t stand out but it does the job, building tension or going quiet in all the right places. There is no voice acting, which I think was a fantastic decision for a game with so many characters and so much dialogue, even if the decision was probably forced by budget. The voices of the 90s RPG characters were written well enough that you didn’t need voice acting – you could hear them talking in your head as you read their text. Underrail is no exception.
This is where Underrail really shines. Right from the outset Underrail demonstrates that it is not afraid to try new things, introducing an “oddity” experience system, where experience is rewarded by picking up special loot instead of through killing or skill use. This may sound bizarre, but it works – it removes the need to grind for experience and allows quests to be completed in a variety of ways. It is easy to say that the core of Underrail is Fallout’s SPECIAL system, but that isn’t really true. There are plenty of similarities, sure. Combat skills have been tidied; guns are no longer separated into twenty separate skills, for example. Subterfuge plays a big part of the game and comes with its own skill set, and there is also an extensive list of technology / crafting skills. The presence of social skills means Charisma could be swapped with Willpower to accommodate Underrail’s psionics system.
Psionics are fantastic; it adds a pseudo-magical element to the game in which the abilities must be learned, but you must have high enough skill levels to learn them. The abilities each have cooldown timers, and also use a replenishing mana-like resource. Everything has its place in Underrail. Guns are effective, and flexible as you can change ammunition types to suit your target, but crossbows are silent. Psionics aren’t just damage abilities but can also be used strategically. The throwing skill is actually useful.
The game is real-time, and swaps to turn-based with action points during combat phases. The looting and crafting systems are intertwined, so that loot is made up of components relevant to the creature or place it is dropped, and can be either utilised for crafting or sold as loot, and unlike many games there is actually a point to spending the time gathering resources and crafting. Shops only buy and sell relevant items and in restricted quantities, which means Monty Hauling isn’t a feasible strategy.
Fun Factor / Replayability
One major aspect of the game is exploration. This may seem counter-intuitive in the seemingly monotonous underground setting but although much of the scenery between locations is the same, the variety of enemies and wildlife you meet keeps it interesting, and you will end up visiting some extremely interesting places. There are no maps, but rather than being a pain I found the exploratory nature of the game interesting enough that I ended up drawing my own maps instead of being annoyed by it. Similarly, there isn’t a lot of hand-holding as far as quests go. Most of the time you will be told what you need to do, but you then need to find the place and work out how to do it yourself (although you may be provided with a hint).
Despite its heavy RPG elements and verbosity, Underrail is primarily a combat game. Ordinarily this might be a turn-off for me, but the combat in Underrail is fast, intense, and interesting. The combat in Shadowrun Returns is probably the closest comparison. Positioning and stealth are important, but so is preparation – setting traps, taking buffs, or trying to find an alternative approach. There is a huge variety of enemies, and the differences aren’t just aesthetic, so you will find yourself having to change your tactics with every battle, changing weapons and ammunition, using grenades or special items and trying different psionic abilities – including the non-damaging ones.
Myriad character creation options and the ability to solve quests in different ways means the game certainly has scope for being replayed. I feel the biggest hindrance is the lack of world changes following quests – for example, at one point you rescue someone who then returns to South Gate Station but instead of moving to the infirmary, he simply vanishes. If you could physically see the impacts you were having on the world it would make it far more motivating to return to the world to see what happens when you make different decisions.
I’m still playing my way through the game (it’s huge!) but I’m absolutely loving it. If you enjoyed your 90s RPGs and the graphics aren’t too much of a turn-off, you will love Underrail. If you discovered CRPGs too late and missed the golden age of Fallout, Arcanum, and Baldur’s Gate, give Underrail a go. If heavy roleplaying isn’t your thing or if you can’t look past the graphics, give this one a miss.