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RPG Codex Preview: Underrail Re-Previewed

RPG Codex Preview: Underrail Re-Previewed

Preview - posted by Grunker on Tue 21 October 2014, 19:29:29

Tags: Stygian Software; Underrail

[Preview by Blaine]

Old-school, isometric, turn-based indie RPG Underrail was last previewed by the Codex on 29 August 2012, courtesy of staff member JarlFrank. Since then, the game has been quite substantially expanded and updated, as summarized in this changelog. In brief, at the time of JarlFrank's writing, only the beginning of the game was available; during the more than two years since then, the size of the game world has tripled or quadrupled, and numerous new items and game mechanics have been implemented.

As such, it's past time for a new and updated preview, although I will be following the general format of JarlFrank's excellent preview and referring back to it occasionally.

I'll kick off with a bit of editorializing: In my opinion, Underrail is nothing less than the second coming of the incline. Its look and feel are indeed very similar to Fallout's, with a dash of understated cyberpunk thrown into the mix, though I must stress that it's not derivative—Underrail stands on its own two feet and has its own distinct identity and atmosphere. Speaking of atmosphere, Underrail is an incredibly atmospheric game. This must be experienced in order to be understood, but suffice it to say that the visuals, sound effects, music, level design, and even the UI all serve to immerse the player in the world Stygian Software has built.

Indeed, this game conjures up the old Origin Systems motto: "We Create Worlds."

The Character System

The character system in Underrail will feel familiar to many, and is, as JarlFrank described it back in 2012, both complex and intuitive. There are seven base attributes, twenty-one skills in six categories, and sixty-eight feats. As you'd expect, base attributes influence derived statistics, increase (or decrease, if they're particularly low) the skills associated with them by a certain percentage, and minimal base attribute scores serve as prerequisites for many feats. Some skills have synergies with each other, in which one skill increases the effective score of the synergistic skill by a percentage of its score, though with limitations. Minimal scores in certain skills also serve as prerequisites for many feats. Skills are the heart of Underrail's character system, while feats serve to augment and further customize your character, and they do an excellent job of it. Feats can grant passive bonuses, may alter or enhance the way in which you use existing abilities, or they can grant new active abilities. Your choice of feats will define your character moving forward as much as your choice of skills and equipment do.

Your character begins the game having distributed 5 base attribute points (or 19 if each attribute is reduced to its starting minimum of 3; default is 5 across the board), 120 skill points, and with two feats. You gain 40 skill points per character level (regardless of base attributes), a number of hit points influenced by Constitution (retroactive), a number of psi points influenced by Will (also retroactive), a feat every even-numbered level, and a base attribute point every four levels. You can assign a maximum of up to 15 points to each skill at creation and up to 5 per level-up, so your maximum base skill scores will be limited by your character level, but are not otherwise limited. Pretty familiar stuff, but it works and is satisfying.

I've played the game for 70+ hours (to the extent of existing content), have tried several builds, and can confidently state that the breadth and depth of characters you can create and develop as you progress through the game is truly immense. Do you want a strong, heavily-armored, intimidating sledgehammer user who also loves SMG spray-and-pray, has a keen eye for finding secret trapdoors, and enjoys knitting? The archetypal roguish fellow who can skulk around unseen, crawl through ventilation ducts, hack computers, pick locks and pockets, slit throats, and is also a mad scientist and bomb-maker? How about a psi user who wears heavy armor, is an accomplished mechanic, has a knack for persuasion, and could sell snow to an Eskimo?

"Themed" builds, min-maxed builds, mix 'n' match builds, whatever you like, it's all possible and the vast majority of combinations seem viable, though I obviously haven't tried them all. It's even rumored that you can finish the game without ever fighting a single enemy by use of stealth, ventilation ducts, hacking, lockpicking, and speech skills (to include bribery), or some combination thereof, though I have yet to try this myself.

I won't delve too deeply into an analysis of dump stats, whether or not skill A is as useful as skill B, or if Feat X is useless or balanced compared to Feat Y, but I will try to offer a bit of insight. In my experience, the base attributes are fairly well balanced thanks to derived statistics, although depending upon your build, you will most likely use a couple of them as "dump stats." If you're a stealthy psi user, you might shave a point off of Strength and/or Constitution, for example. The way I chose to play Underrail, I found the Social (speech) skills fairly marginal, although you will get to use them regularly and in significant ways. Technology (crafting) skills, on the other hand, are extremely useful, leading to powerful custom-built items that outshine looted and shop-bought items, though not absurdly so. Feats are all useful and seem actually incredibly well-balanced; I always had a hard time choosing which feats I wanted to take, even when playing a certain type of character that narrowed the scope of choices.

The Combat System

Combat in Underrail is isometric, turn-based, and plays out on a square grid. There are no transitions, meaning combat takes place on the same map used to otherwise explore and interact with the game world. It is Action Point-based, and your AP are split between "normal" AP (hereafter referred to simply as "AP"), colored green, and movement-only AP (hereafter referred to as "MP"), colored yellow.

Instead of certain amounts of AP being allotted based on attributes and feats, as was the case in Fallout for example, instead each character has a set 50 AP to use during each combat round. Heavier melee weapons (and calibers/types of firearms) cost more AP to use than lighter ones, and AP costs can also be influenced by feats and equipped items. For example, the Gunslinger feat reduces the AP cost to fire pistols by 3, while the Lifting Belt item reduces the AP cost to swing sledgehammers by 5. Available AP may be increased by use of combat-enhancing drugs and "buffs," or decreased by drug withdrawal effects and by enemy abilities and attacks ("debuffs"). "Normal" AP may also be used as MP on a 1:1 basis.

MP can only be used for movement, and it costs 10 MP to move one square. Characters have 30 MP by default, and gain an additional 3 MP for every point in Agility above 5. MP can be temporarily increased by certain active feats (Sprint adds 30 MP for two turns), by certain combat-enhancing drugs, and can be semi-permanently increased by wearing certain types of boots. MP are decreased by armor penalty (very heavy metal armors can completely remove your MP), and may be reduced or removed entirely by enemy abilities and attacks (entanglement in thrown nets, Kneecap Shot, etc.). Armor penalty also reduces the Dodge and Evasion skills.

Your health, shield levels, and psi points, your items and abilities, your chance to hit an enemy with an attack, enemies' HP, overall level, shield strength, and psi points, number of bullets remaining in your firearm, the AP cost to use a weapon or item, and all manner of other pertinent information (such as how many MP/AP you'll have left after moving or performing an action) are readily available and well-presented by the game's UI, which I'll cover in its own section later. It all works very smoothly and is a joy to interact with.

Now that that technical crap is out of the way, I'll move on to describing combat as a whole. While you can't take a knee/lie prone as in Jagged Alliance 2, nor aim for specific body parts as was the case in Fallout (and also JA2), and can control only a single character (no, there are no party members or followers), there IS a ton of tactical depth in Underrail's combat—and it's present throughout the game, from low levels to high. Aside from your choice of skills, which will have a major impact on how you approach combat, your choice of gear also matters, including two things in particular: your belt, and your utility items. That may sound a bit silly, but belts are rather special and typically grant extra utility slots and a special bonus, such as the Doctor's Pouch which grants one extra utility slot and reduces the AP cost to use medical consumables by 75%. Utility items are items such as frag or high-explosive grenades, flashbangs, caltrops, throwing knives, and cloaking field generators. The belt and utility items you bring along will have a substantial impact on how you approach combat.

There are a wide variety of weapons and offensive abilities, including guns (pistols, SMGs, assault rifles, sniper rifles, acid pistols, laser pistols, and plasma pistols), crossbows featuring a variety of special bolts that may stun enemies, poison them, explode, etc., melee weapons which include different sorts of sledgehammers, knives, and fist weapons, and finally thrown weapons, such as EMP grenades, flashbangs, throwing knives and so on. Additionally, there are psi abilities that can do anything from placing an enemy in cryostasis, to blowing up a large area, to creating shadowy doppelgangers of a human enemy which follow him around and psychically beat the living crap out of him for several rounds.

In a tough combat situation, you must use your brain and properly utilize all the tools at your disposal in order to survive. How, when and if to use your utility items and abilities, how, when and if to use combat drugs and health stims (these are often on a long cooldown and/or have nasty side-effects), where and how to move, which enemy to tackle first... I'm actually at a bit of a loss to describe it properly, but the point is, it's extremely satisfying and challenging. There is no brainless popamole in this game, until your character becomes very strong, in which case standard rathounds and other weaker enemies won't be much of a threat. Even then however, conserving your resources as best you can while dealing with said enemies will keep those brain juices flowing.

It must be stated that this game utilizes cooldowns on powerful utility items, special abilities, and some psi abilities, in order to prevent, for example, winning a combat by taking an Adrenaline Shot and spamming five Mark V frag grenades at a group of enemies, or surviving only by virtue of spamming health stims. Some Codexers hate cooldowns of any kind, but I believe they work well and are appropriately integrated here.

Enemies in Underrail can and will stun you, immobilize you, cripple you, kneecap you, freeze you, throw grenades at you, sneak attack you if your detection score isn't high enough (you'll know this has occurred when combat begins with no warning and you end up stunned, poisoned, crippled, with half your health missing, etc.), pretty much the gamut. There appears to be no discernable "hidden difference" between what the enemies can do with their feats and items and what you can do with yours, and this adds to the game's tactical nature immensely. I've never seen enemies throw caltrops, throwing knives, or EMP grenades, and that may be Styg having some small measure of mercy on the player, because EMP grenades completely drain your shields and deal damage to you.

The Crafting System

The crafting system wasn't covered in JarlFrank's preview, and I'm more than happy do so here, because it's absolutely fantastic. The concept of in-depth item crafting by the player character(s) was mostly absent in old-school RPGs of yesteryear, but doesn't feel tacked onto or shoehorned into Underrail.

If an item can be looted, found, or purchased from a merchant, it can most probably also be crafted, provided of course your character has the skill to do so. You can craft all manner of guns, knives, fist weapons, and sledgehammers; leather and metal armor, boots, and headgear; grenades, traps, and mines; stims, drugs, and medicines; and even exotic items like energy shield emitters (personal force fields), cloaking devices, and acid pistols. You can also recycle unwanted items into scraps, and turn those scraps into repair kits. Did I mention that items have durability scores? Well, they do, and they become less effective when heavily damaged, so you'll want to repair them from time to time.

Before you craft something, you must find or purchase its blueprint. Once the proper blueprint has been obtained and uploaded, you can open your crafting window, select the blueprint, drag components into the provided slots, and press the Create button to produce the desired item. This isn't as straightforward and simplistic as it sounds and blueprints are usually multipurpose, since slots can often accommodate several different types of components, and many components have a quality rating which influences both the strength of the final product and the skill needed to create that product. There are often many different component combinations possible within the same blueprint.

For example, in the above image I'm creating a Steel Cat SMG. The Steel Cat frame I'm using (there are several other types of SMG frames available) is quality 96, and accepts both 7.62mm and 8.6mm barrels. I've chosen the 8.6mm barrel, a caliber which deals a bit more damage than 7.62mm at the expense of costing a bit more AP to fire the weapon and slightly reduced magazine capacity. SMGs may also have one or two attachments (or none). I selected a laser sight attachment and an extended magazine attachment, which increase my aiming precision and expand the SMG's magazine capacity, respectively. I could add a forward grip attachment instead of the extended magazine, increasing precision during burst fire instead of expanding the magazine capacity, or I could just add the laser sight and call it a day.

Many items' inventory icons and descriptions also change to reflect the specific components you've added to them. You can see this for yourself in the image above, and if you look closely, you'll notice the laser sight and the extended magazine (the black rectangular bit hanging down from the front) on the Steel Cat's inventory icon.

Additional components may also increase the difficulty of creating the final product, usually by an amount based upon their own quality rating.

Psi Abilities, AKA Absolutely Not Sci-Fi Wizard Magic

My opinion diverges from JarkFrank's when it comes to Underrail's implementation of psi abilities. Yes, psi is essentially sci-fi wizard magic, but it doesn't feel that way, either in practice or in presentation. Psi in Underrail evokes a very cyberpunk-like feel in my opinion, from the ability icons and descriptions, to the actual special effects during combat, to psi-specific gear, such as headbands with crazy wires and eyepieces protruding every which way. Psi is a desirable aspect of the game that adds variety and has a unique feel.

Psi skill levels and psi points are empowered by the Will base attribute. You learn psi abilities (which are absolutely not "spells") mainly from trainer NPCs, but also during special quests and from a few consumable items (essentially "spell books," but with zany technological inventory icons). In order to use psi abilities, you must expend psi points. The one and only way to restore psi points is by use of consumable psi boosters (which are absolutely not "mana potions," despite being colored blue), in order to prevent the player character from blowing all of his psi points in one combat and then "sleeping" to get them back (you can't rest in Underrail), or waiting for them to regenerate. You have to conserve your resources. That said, once you're more than a few hours into the game you'll be able to afford as many psi boosters as you could possibly want, but even so, the amount of psi points you can expend during one combat is limited.

There's not much more to say about psi, except to reiterate that it's an enjoyable and unique way to approach playing the game. Other Codexers have said that they had a lot of fun with it, and so did I when I tried it. It's very tactical, as there are a variety of "crowd control" and damage-dealing abilities, as well as some psi abilities that have synergy with each other (for example, a debuff that enhances the damage of a follow-up psi attack and then expires).

Stealth Gameplay

I've rarely, if ever, seen stealth implemented so well in an RPG. It is a powerful tool when used correctly, but is also kept carefully in check by the game mechanics to ensure that the player can't be too cheesy with it. For example, if you're caught sneaking through a room full of enemies, flee through an exit, and then return to the same room shortly thereafter, they will be waiting for you and won't be fooled just because you're sneaking again. You can however outpace them within the same room, get out of their line of sight, and then re-enter stealth—the non-cheesy way, in other words.

Additionally, if someone or something bumps into you while you're in stealth mode, a red "BUMP!" floating text appears on-screen and you're forced out of stealth. This can result in a severe case of loud cursing, for example when a fast-moving little cave hopper bumps into you while you're trying to sneak past a group of psi beetles.

You must enter stealth mode while out of a character's sight in order to fool it. Characters who can see you when you enter stealth won't be fooled. This means that if you want to break into a home and loot it, for example, you'll probably have to duck around the corner, enter stealth, then sneak to the door and hope the guard across the courtyard doesn't notice you before you pick the door open.

When you've successfully fooled a character, how long it takes for them to discover you is based on their detection score (influenced by the Perception attribute and overall character level), your proximity to them (further is obviously better), and whether you're in front of them, to the side, or behind them. Even characters with extremely high Stealth scores won't stay hidden for long if dancing around right in front of a guard's face.

Stealth success is indicated by an eye-shaped icon above other characters' heads that "fills up" like a meter and transitions between warning colors to indicate how well-hidden you are. The pace at which the eye meter fills up is based on your Stealth skill and the aforementioned factors (proximity, whether you're behind or in front of someone, et cetera). While the eye icon is green, the character doesn't suspect your presence; while it's yellow, they see "something" but don't think much of it; when it's orange, they suspect your presence and may even come to investigate; when it's red, they see you. If the eye icon is white, the character can't be fooled by stealth at all. This applies to security cameras and most automatons (Auto-Turrets, et cetera), but then again, being caught by machines doesn't necessarily alert the whole map's worth of enemies. A camera can typically only summon guards, for example, allowing you to potentially escape before they arrive at that location to investigate.

Security cameras, by the way, are often linked to a specific surveillance monitor, which you can interact with to see what the camera sees. Very cool. If the camera is destroyed, the surveillance monitor it's linked to goes dark, and also alerts any guard that might happen to be in the surveillance room monitoring that monitor. You can peek through ventilation duct grilles to see what's outside them in much the same way.

In addition to stealth itself and the way it interacts with other characters, cameras and so on, there are also ventilation ducts that can be accessed by prying vent grilles off the wall with a prybar, or unfastening them with an item called an Omni-Tool (that may be a reference to some other game, wink nudge). Your character must possess enough Strength or Lockpicking skill to use prybars or Omni-Tools, respectively, based on the difficulty of opening an individual vent. Ventilation ducts can be used to covertly access rooms, and sometimes there'll even be enemies or secret passages within the ducts themselves. For example, in one potential scenario you might use the ventilation ducts to climb across a room through the ceiling, into the surveillance room, slit the surveillance guard's throat using the Cut-Throat feat ability, then hack a console and reprogram Auto-Turrets elsewhere in the level to shoot at guards. (Situations like these are rare, however; it's not a repetitive gimmick as seen in some stealth games.)

Finally, there are feats such as Snipe, Ambush, and Cut-Throat granting special attacks that can only be used while in stealth mode, as well as Interloper, the inevitable feat that increases movement speed while in stealth mode. All in all, stealth is magnificently implemented in Underrail and offers a unique way to approach the game.

Level Design

As stated by JarlFrank in his 2012 preview, Underrail's level design ranges from serviceable to amazing, and while I agree with that sentiment, he had only a fraction of the world at his disposal back then. I've seen nearly all there is to see so far, and rest assured, there is some fantastic exploration and fiddling about with the environment to be had in this game. You can easily get turned around and lost in the extensive cave system (not helped by the absence of a map, which some people dislike but which I personally think is fantastic), and Core City is absolutely immense. I must avoid describing the most memorable parts of exploration and environmental interaction in order to avoid spoiling them, but they're there, and you'll probably be amazed that they're in a turn-based indie RPG. There are even a few puzzles of sorts, and not the insultingly stupid kind, either.

Most levels sport a lot of detail, including searchable boxes, lockers, barrels, and junk piles (some of which must be lockpicked or hacked); boulders that must be demolished in order to proceed further; doors and elevators which may also be electronically or mechanically locked, might be jammed, or may need to be repaired; light switches, electrical switches, generators, computer consoles, security cameras, Auto-Turrets, and surveillance monitors; exploding barrels you can shoot; water from which certain enemies may leap and ambush you; little critters running around underfoot eating mushrooms; various plants to pick; secret doors or areas including secret ventilation ducts, trapdoors, hidden switches, or entire tunnels; keys and keycards pickpocket-able from guards and the like; and more. More environmental interaction is also planned in Underrail's next alpha update.

NPCs patrol, steam billows from vents, lights flicker on and off, fans turn and make noise (that diminishes as you move away from them), there might be a hard-to-see ladder leading up to an obscure little hideout belonging to a paranoid weirdo, you'll hear water dripping, hear critters munching on mushrooms... the ambient sound effects in general, come to think of it, really pull it all together.

Instead of including several screenshots or walking you through a quest (refer to JarlFrank's preview for that), I'll refer you to the "Locations" page of the official Underrail Wiki. You can pick a few locations, see their in-game level map(s) (devoid of NPCs and so on), and get a feel for the game's level design.

Don't you want to explore the crap out of this map? Just look all the exits, ladders (well, they may be hard to see in that image), doors, containers, atmospheric lighting and so on. That's just one small portion of one area of Core City.

The User Interface

I considered several ways of approaching the topic of Underrail's UI, from banging out paragraphs trying to explain how it works in great detail, to creating labeled charts in an image editing program. Ultimately, I decided that that would be a waste of both my time and the reader's time, and settled for this short note at the end of the preview. You'll get to know the UI when you play the game, though of course you can see it in the screenshots.

Underrail's UI is excellently constructed, and should satisfy even the crankiest Codex grognard. It's slick and interesting without being flashy or annoying, informative and flexible without being visually busy or overcomplicated, and offers surprising features such as context-sensitive "side buttons" next to your standard skill bar that change depending on what weapon or item you have equipped, and have their own Shift- and CTRL-sensitive hotkeys. The menus are well laid out, and font and color choices on the menus, buttons, and tooltips not only look good, but also offer practical visual contrast and fidelity.

The UI design is, in short, some of the best I've ever seen, occasionally equalled but never exceeded in any game I've ever played. I might even go so far as to say that it's the best UI ever implemented in a computer RPG, full stop. If there are any better, I don't remember them.

Closing Remarks

As I wrote at the beginning of this preview, Underrail is the second coming of the incline. The only reasonable conclusion to draw here is that you should either play the game now, or look forward to playing it later when it's officially released. Although the current version offers an enormous amount of content, is very stable, and doesn't feel "unfinished" (although it is, as you'll discover once you reach higher levels), it isn't quite done, so you may prefer to wait.

Having said that, the game isn't without its flaws. As JarkFrank mentioned in his preview, there are a lot of typos, and boy, there really are a lot of them. They're present in skill/item descriptions as well as dialog. In addition, and this is my personal opinion, some of the NPC dialog is a bit awkward or rushed and should be copyedited and cleaned up. This is a very manageable flaw (though no small task) that could turn into a big one if allowed into the final release.

Also, the game is a little bit (really just a scosche) light on NPC dialog and C&C at the moment, though there is a good bit of dialog and C&C. Of course, the game's not finished, so it's hard to make a solid judgement, especially on the C&C front.

In conclusion, this game is great, and if you don't like it, you're a tasteless waste of oxygen and should be removed from the Codex. Grunker and/or Infinitron, you'd better not cut this part! It's important.

You can buy Underrail on Steam: http://store.steampowered.com/app/250520/

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