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Sword and Sorcery -- Underworld Review

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Sword and Sorcery -- Underworld Review

Review - posted by Elwro on Mon 4 April 2011, 14:32:40

Tags: OlderBytes; Swords and Sorcery: Underworld

It only took us a year to prepare a review for the onlybest oldschool dungeon crawl of 2010, Sword and Sorcery -- Underworld. Here's the review by yours truly.
<p style="padding-left: 30px;">Every step outside of a tavern is a risk, and don't be surprised if your freshly created party is reduced to 1 barely standing, 5 unconscious after a stroll around a corner of the starting town. (...) later on, in true oldschool tradition you're fighting varieties of dragons every second step.
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For some time there's been a new cRPG developer on the market, "Classic Games Remade". So, when you hear the phrase "old-school dungeon crawl", what are the titles which spring into your mind? Eye of the Beholder? Bloodwych? Dungeon Master? Well, in these games you could see the enemy coming from a distance. Not so in Sword and Sorcery -- Underworld, which tries to emulate the spirit of the first games in the Might and Magic series, and does a pretty faithful job. Here, every step outside of a tavern is a risk, and don't be surprised if your freshly created party is reduced to 1 barely standing, 5 unconscious after a stroll around a corner of the starting town. In fact, you could take the manual of Might and Magic 1: Secret of the Inner Sanctum and you would find it pretty helpful here, and I'm not saying it just because the games are so similar, but because Underworld lacks a proper manual. Yes, the basics are self-evident, and there's a decent help section on the website, together with an introductory gameplay video, but having a nice manual is simply a part of the oldschool experience I find hard to say good-bye to. I hope the developer includes one with his future games.
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<h2>The humble beginning</h2>
Enough with the negativity. Right from the main menu one notices that everything in the game is doable by keyboard via natural shortcuts, which is a big plus in my opinion. (You can also use the mouse.)<sup>[Editor's note: a sentence offensive to animals and sexual minorities was removed due to general concern.]</sup> Already in the character creation it becomes evident how much the game has in common with the first MnM games, and, by transitivity, with Dungeons & Dragons. There are seven primary stats (Strength, Endurance, Spirit, Intelligence, Accuracy, Speed, Luck), four races (humans, elves, dwarves, gnomes) and six classes: Knight, Paladin, Rogue, Archer, Priest and Sorcerer. Classes have stat requirements, so you might have to keep rerolling if you want to create a specific char. I created a party having one character of each class, keeping the first char which met the stat requirements. It turned out that such a party was good enough for comfortably beating the game. Different party compositions are certainly viable; ditching the Paladin for a second Sorcerer one of the most reasonable choices.
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Stats influence what happens in a reasonable way corresponding to their names, so let's not go into too much detail here. Spirit is most important for Priests, Accuracy for Archers, and Intelligence for Sorcerers. Speed determines the order of action during combat. Classes also have straightforward roles; let me just note that the Paladin is a bit worse fighter than the Warrior, but one that gains the ability to cast Priest spells on higher xp levels.
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After the party has been created the adventure begins. You exit a tavern in the city of Highnest and start exploring the world. The game is a grid based dungeon crawler and has two display modes: either you see a very basic image of the game world from the first person perspective, or, during combat, you see a list of opponents (which, in keeping with the oldschool tradition, can extend far into dozens), an accompanying picture, your party stats and the available options. Important events are illustrated by static full-screen illustrations. You'll be seeing the combat screen very often. In fact, hordes of opponents roam the streets of the game's cities (again, true to the tradition), and you will be fighting every few steps. In the meantime you will find that the first city has a temple, an arena, an inn (to buy food at), a shop, a training hall (to advance to the next experience level you have to go there and pay, which, if you are not careful, may put a strain on your budget), a tavern, a blocked entrance to the catacombs, the Stewardess' hall and lots of locked houses. The catacombs can be entered in at least 3 ways. It's worthy to investigate the locked houses as this leads to receiving more quests. (You can't bash locked doors; your Thieving Ability is checked, so here's one occasion on which a Rogue is handy.)
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You immediately get to know that some Bad Being is threatening the world. After exploring the city, you soon enter the underworld and begin your crawl to the glorious end. Since you'll spend most time in combat, let's focus on that for a while. As I said above, you don't see the enemies coming. It's just that often, after entering a new square, you see the "ENCOUNTER!" message and the combat screen opens. The order of action seems to be determined by Speed. The ordering of your party members is also important - characters from positions 1 and 2 seem to be in front, those from 5 and 6 at the back. This is worth mentioning since being in hand-to-hand combat range makes using a bow (or a sling) impossible (if the char is not an archer). Anyway, depending on your class there are various options in combat, with more appearing later in the game. Most of the initial options are straightforward and unsurprising - melee attack, missile attack, use item, cast a spell, defend, run away - apart from Rogue's "stealth" option, which enables him to try to assassinate one of the opponents the next turn. (By sacrificing one turn, your rogue tries to get in position to perform the deadliest form of attack, at least early in the game.) Every character can perform one action each turn.
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The opponents are divided into those in melee combat range and those farther away, which influences their options (to survive, you'll need to learn to manipulate this using the Sonic Blast spell, which pushes some enemies away). There is a basic AI in place. Overwhelmed enemies run away, which reduces the time of unneeded trash combat; you can also choose combat to be automated if you're confident in your party's skills. Mummies try to silence your casters. Temptresses try to charm your party. Sprites cast curses. Vampires (and vampire elders) summon help. Some opponents try to heal other opponents. Various types of dragons have special forms of attack. Still, the AI does not utilise every opportunity of doing harm to your party. No single hit can kill a character with a positive number of hps -- it can only reduce his hps to 0, leaving the character unconscious. Any subsequent hit will be fatal, but you have a chance to heal him. There were many occasions in which the AI could have tried to kill my unconscious character but didn't do it; still, maybe it's for the better. Later in the game some of the characters gain additional abilities. The Rogue gets the option to "Bleed" an opponent, which is similar to assassination but with an effect enduring for the duration of the combat. Since the effects of many "Bleedings" cumulate, this is a very efficient way of fighting enemies with huge numbers of hps. The Archer receives the "Barrage" option, enabling him to target many opponents in one turn. The Knight, if he's not wielding a shield, can go berserk and whack many opponents, but also receiving some damage in the process.
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I found the combat to be quite challenging, but not overwhelming. It got significantly easier in the endgame, and I bet it would be easier with two Sorcerers early on. Anyway, to survive, you have to use almost every spell and every combat option, which is a big plus in my opinion - there are very few useless options open to your characters. Usage of spells is essential. But casting requires materials - "magical runes" for Sorcerers and holy water for Priests. Regular water, consumed during resting, can be obtained in fountains and lakes. Then an appropriate spell has to be cast to transform it into holy water. There is a bit of a confusing mechanic concerning the limits imposed on the number of water units that can be carried by a character; it requires pooling all your water in your Priest's inventory from time to time, casting the "Holy Water" spell, and spreading water around the party again. I'd say this is unnecessary, but it's a minor thing. The magical runes are obtained after some fights, especially if some of the opponents used magic. In one part of the game you will have to keep eye on the rune counter, since spells will cost more and more and you will be fighting lots of purely "physical" opponents.
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Why is casting spells essential? For starters, you cannot harm the undead in melee if you're not blessed. (Fortunately, later on the Priest (or Paladin) can cast a spell which blesses the whole party.) Both Priest and Sorcerer have potent offensive spells. The Priest can, of course, heal and cure diseases. If you don't use Sorcerer's spell Levitate, you will fall into hidden snake pits and will have to walk around lava streams. There are three spells allowing quick transport: opening a portal or teleporting to it (there are 3 slots), "Ascending" to the surface, or using a "Magic Carpet" to fly from one town to another. The low-level spell "Jump" moves the party two tiles ahead if there's no solid obstacle. A Sorcerer can also shield the party from missile attacks, which can be a life-saver when fighting 30 archers. A very useful spell called "Ethereal Bodies" makes the party ethereal for one turn, enabling you to pass through walls. You can save much time using it, but it's also a bit buggy since you can enter some locations which clearly weren't meant to be entered. (Don't try to save your game if you see that the Automap is confused.) Arguably the most important spell is "Fear", which will immobilize even some of the most potent enemies for at least one turn.
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You can rest anytime in the dungeon. This consumes food and water and risks an ambush; at the beginning of the combat some characters may be asleep and others will have to wake them up. You can protect from this by the "Elven Shield" spell. Resting also seems to be the only way of removing a curse. Instead of taking the risk of resting in the wild, you can return to an inn, which also provides a natural savegame point. But don't panic, you can save anywhere. In fact, the two big changes to the truly oldschool formula are these: you can save anywhere and you have a detailed automap, with interesting dungeon features properly labeled.
At any point during exploration you can press "s" to search the given tile for hidden stuff. No stat check seems to govern the result. This is something you want to do e.g. after killing a monster in its lair. But also after reaching a mysterious dead-end in the dungeon. In one of the hidden places I found a book with some information on the setting I seemingly wouldn't have got from anywhere else.
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The graphics style makes {c, non-c} look consistent. The way the world is presented in the "exploration mode" is in no way similar to the pictures of the opponents or to the big illustrations you see in important places and during momentous events. This is off-putting at the start, but I've become accustomed to it. One has to note that none of the illustrations are reused -- all opponent types have unique pictures. The thwacking sounds you hear the most of are satisfying; even though I usually turn off sound in indie games I made an exception with Underworld, since I found the sound layer gave the game a bit more atmosphere.
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The plot, as I guess expected, is nothing special. The side quests are also pretty straightforward. Some of the seemingly "main" quests can be performed in any order; some (if not the majority) are entirely optional. The main point is: the game is quite addictive and engaging. Despite its simplicity, and the cheesiness of both its (unproofread) writing and some of the art, it's simply fun to play. The "just one more corridor" factor is present here, and I guess that's what counts. The game is also quite short; I finished it in exactly 12 hours. I guess I could grind my characters to higher levels, but I prefer to start the game with a different party after some time.
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<h2>Some drawbacks</h2>
So, by now you should have the basic idea of what you get by buying Underworld. And now for what you don't get. There's one general term for what this game lacks: variety. Variety in areas, items, and quests. In all these areas it's decent, but miles behind the classics of the past. First, loot is minimal. For the first few hours you'll be lucky if your opponents drop a walking stick or a sling every once in a while; loot becomes abundant later on, when in true oldschool tradition you're fighting varieties of dragons every second step, but honestly, how many generic sets of plate armour can your party carry?<sup>* </sup>
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When it comes to weapons, deciding which one to use at the given moment is always straightforward -- there's only the eternal "2H with good damage or 1H with shield" dilemma. (Archers can equip shields and shoot.) Some items are, reasonably, class-restricted. There are also some unique class-specific (and usually quest-related) items. But overall, the game would be improved by more varied loot.
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Character development could use some fleshing out, too. Casters know all their spells by experience level 9. From then, the only advancement is in that the spells are more and more potent (and cost more runes to cast). I'd say that without additional grinding in the dragon-filled levels you'll be finishing the game before reaching level 20, but there will still be about 10 levels in which nothing really interesting happens for the casters (apart from e.g. the fact that their "Fear" spell now works on creatures it didn't work before). Archers and Rogues look forward to level 12, when they get the Barrage and Bleed abilities, but after that it's again only the increase in quantity. Still, it's quite satisfying when your archer scores a critical hit, dealing over 9000 damage<sup>**</sup>. Adding new character abilities is difficult since, as I said, right now every option is useful. Similarly, I cannot think of new spells which would fit the game's simple formula right now. (Apart from "Remove Curse"). But hey, maybe that's why I'm not a game designer.
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The quests usually require diligent exploration and competent fighting. I can think of only one puzzle in the whole game; it's optional, too. There's no concept of alignment, all quests are available for all races and classes. There are some good moments. You might e.g. stumble upon an object which really should be taken to the temple ASAP. If you ignore the hint about that and take your time, you're in for a surprise. There's also a smart hint about the location of one object which is not in the place you'd expect it, but in a place perfectly fitting the pedigree of the person giving you the hint (sorry, have to be cryptic not to spoil this one). Then again, there are some clearly uninspired areas, e.g. the Barracks, which consist of 16 similar square rooms. There are many optional quests and items you may not find, but no real choices. The real choice you make, which determines your playthrough style, is the initial composition of your party.
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So, if you lack streetcred due to not having played many of the genre classics, and you've simply always craved some oldschool RPG experience, but were afraid of having to map all the dungeons yourself and being allowed to save in taverns only, or just want to relive the experience, this is the game for you. I honestly hope the target group is big enough to merit a sequel.<sup>***</sup> Then again, I hope that these people, after getting accustomed to the oldschool feel, move on to play the true classics, since they still have more to offer.
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"Sword and Sorcery -- Underworld" shows many things. For example, that in 2010 you could release a commercial game without any animation. But also that such games can be damn enjoyable. It costs $20 (you can also find it on GamersGate). This is reasonable, but, I guess, also the maximum one can ask for this title. One could point out that there are many cheap games with AAA values on various sales around the internet. But as far as I can see, none of these titles is an addictive old-school dungeon crawl in the style of the first Might and Magic games. Try the demo!
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* The answer is 42, and I'm not kidding here.
** In the game's reality, I managed something closer to 2000, but the point still stands.
*** In fact, there's a prequel, "Peregrine's song", which you will find to be freeware. I'm not posting a link since some of the assets were reused in the newer game and it might shatter your immersion when the little girl you rescue in "Underworld" turns out to be your sister in "Peregrine's song" (incidentally, this "Peregrine" is a woman); anyway, the newer game is much improved. Still, it is with sadness that I have to point out that one, if not the only one, feature it lacks in comparison to the previous title is summoning and flying around the world on the back of a giant condor. You can't have everything, I guess, but one can always dream of roaming the skies of, uh, underworld, mounted on a majestic creature of the wild bound by your iron will and thighs of steel.

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