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GrogHeads Reviews Underrail

Airboy dives into the bowels of Underrail to see if it’s worth taking the plunge ~

Avery Abernethy, 14 April 2017

Computer RPGs often have an excellent design concept but poor execution. Other RPGs have a great design and good execution, but play balance goes off usually later in the game. Your characters become so powerful that almost nothing presents a challenge. Very few RPGs have a good concept, and game mechanics while retaining challenging (but not impossible) play throughout the game. Even fewer RPGs manage to do this while enabling different effective play styles. Underrail is one of a handful of games I’ve ever played which hits all of these benefits.

The setting of Underrail is a post-apocalypse underground world. A huge subway system exists.

Cities and villages exist underground. Most locations are small villages with one underground city.

Various stations on the underground metro system are fighting for resources and to maintain independence. Factions abound. Some are firm allies; others are allies of convenience while others revel in anarchy. The game resembles an underground Fallout 2 with a much larger game world.

A huge cave system encompasses the underground railway system. Some of the wilderness are abandoned human buildings or rail maintenance areas.

They are sparsely populated with very dangerous human individuals or gangs. This “wilderness” area is far larger than the settlements.

 

Almost the entire wilderness is in the dark. Wilderness encounters run the gamut from the benign to the incredibly dangerous. Some of the wildlife is so stealthy that they strike, poison, and vanish from your senses.

There are two methods of gaining experience. You choose the experience system when setting up the game. I chose the traditional system where you get experience for accomplishing missions and killing things.

Under the traditional system you gain minor experience for uncovering “oddities” from the natural or pre-apocalypse world. The oddity experience system reverses this with most experience gained from discovering new oddities with minor experience from killing things. Oddities abound in the game with some giving experience only once with others giving experience for up to ten finds.

 

You have a limited number of traditional RPG attributes. You must allocate a finite number of points to your starting attributes. You gain an additional attribute point every 5th level so those are few and far between. You also start with a much larger number of skill points which are allocated across categories at the start of the game.

Major skill groups are combat (gun, melee, throwing, crossbows); evasion (dodging melee attacks or ranged attacks); stealth (hiding, lock picking, pick pocket, and hacking); crafting stuff (a number of different areas); mental skills (think shooting electric bolts, fire, ect….) and speech (merchantile, persuasion and intimidation. You also have specific feats with two given at character creation. A new feat is added every other level like Fallout 1 and 2. Your level in specific skills and your score in specific attributes limit the available feats. Every level you gain gives you 40 new skill points with an additional feat added every-other level and an attribute point added every fifth level.

For example, I’m approaching endgame with a 17th level character. After building my initial character I’ve gotten an additional 40 skill points per level (16 additional levels x 40 = 640 total skill points). I’ve picked up a total of 8 new feats and gotten 3 new attribute points. This lengthy discussion highlights a critical game design choice: you cannot do more than a handful of things well.

At 17th level my character can shoot well, especially with assault rifles. I’m very stealthy and can pick locks and hack electronic devices. I can make a lot of really cool stuff. But my character is completely inept in a host of areas. My character has no psionics and there are a host of valuable skills in this area. Melee weapons and crossbow use are a mystery to me and my grenades could land almost anywhere. I cannot pick pockets, bargain with merchants, or persuade anyone. My character really fears skilled melee fighters and psionic users. Building a melee or psionic centered character are valid builds which can be very powerful. Most RPGs claim they enable multiple types of successful builds. Underrail may have the most balanced build system I’ve ever played. Every build has profound strengths and weaknesses. According to the forums and wikis, the game can be successfully completed using radically different character builds.

Underail excels in game balance. At every stage of the game from raw beginner to experienced veteran I’ve lost close battles which required reloading. Building a game system providing challenging play throughout the campaign while not hitting areas which are almost impossible to complete is very hard to pull off. Underrail makes this a reality.

Your character starts out doing missions for South Rail Station. You are charged with obtaining a drill component needed to dig out from an earthquake. Access to most of the world is blocked until you can fix the drill. After that, the world is wide open if you can survive the journey.

There are multiple underground factions. You cannot ally with all of the factions and your decisions may cause the downfall or rise of a faction. The main plot focuses on an outcast faction called the faceless which launched a powerful attack seemingly focused on one technology provider. Why they attacked is a mystery. All the while various factions are striving for the upper hand.

 

 

The controls are very logical. You can easily reconfigure different attack feats as you obtain them.   Carry weight is a factor. The background music was actually good and not annoying. This is the first game I’ve played since Fallout 2 that I did not turn the music off. I did have a consistent display bug. I run my monitor at 125% since it sits far back on my desk and the screen is large. The initial game load is slow and I often have to click the icon multiple times to obtain a full screen setting.

The game runs in real time until the start of combat. During combat it switches to turn based with limited action points and an initiative system. The play convention is very close to that used in Fallout 1 and 2 and similar to the initial UFO: Alien Defense. I dislike twitch games and the mix of real time and turn based combat hits my RPG sweet spot.

Underrail has been updated many times by the developers. This may be why the game balance today is so polished. I bought my copy during the Steam Christmas sale for $10. Both Gog and Steam currently sell the game for $15. Underrail is one of the largest RPGs with perhaps the best play balance I’ve ever seen.   If you like RPGs with turn-based combat, you will probably love Underrail. I would rate it a 95 on a 100 point scale.

 

Avery Abernethy is a Professor of Marketing at Auburn University. He kept his original retail boxes of Fallout 1 and 2, Baldur’s Gate and Jagged Alliance 2.


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