It’s been over 25 years since the release of first-person dungeon-crawler Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, which laid the groundwork for open-ended “immersive sims” like System Shock, Dishonored, and Deus Ex, in addition to being beloved in its own right. And it’s been nearly three years since the announcement of Underworld Ascendant, a Kickstarter-funded sequel made by members of the original team. But after a long period of quiet, studio OtherSide Entertainment and publisher 505 Games showed off some of the latest gameplay footage at PAX South. It’s still set for release in the second half of 2018, a date OtherSide quietly announced last year.
Underworld Ascendant Kickstarter backers have had access to a pre-alpha version of the game for a while now. But game director Joe Fielder drew a broader picture of his goals for the project, and explained how OtherSide wants it to differ from the many games that have followed in Ultima Underworld’s footsteps — like Arkane Studios’ Prey, released just last year. “You can see how [Ultima Underworld] inspired other games, but there are many systems that exist within there that no one has followed up about,” Fielder tells The Verge.
That includes some specific items from the original game, like the Silver Sapling, which lets players choose a point to resurrect if they die. More generally, it means a lot of focus on physics and interacting with objects in the world. In addition to fighting or sneaking with standard weapons and spells, you can do things like gum up a trap with an adhesive bulb, or feed a slug to give its slime trail useful properties like flammability. Players can earn experience by unlocking achievement-like “feats” with different actions.
Underworld Ascendant will give players “Memora” (basically, currency) when they complete quests, but their reward also depends on how much they’ve combined different gameplay elements, or used systems they haven’t tried before. OtherSide has fielded complaints about whether this focus on gameplay achievements will make the world feel less immersive. But Fielder says it’s supposed to tie into the story — which is about a human who’s drawn into the game’s underground Stygian Abyss, and must fight a mythological “primordial nightmare” called Typhon. (No relation to Prey’s enemies, which are also known as the Typhon.)
“Ultimately, the tired old ways of the past aren’t going to dispatch Typhon. You really need a creative, innovative mind to do this,” says Fielder. The game’s factions will also favor different gameplay styles — a fungal hive mind called the Shamblers will get angry if you use too much fire, for example, and another faction might love melee combat.
A lot of OtherSide’s promises about “emergent gameplay,” where players can exploit general-purpose rules to find unexpected gameplay options, are simply what you’d expect from an immersive sim. (Dishonored, for example, was sold heavily on emergence.) But so far, it does look like Underworld Ascendant will put more emphasis on constant experimentation, rather than finding a few novel solutions and sticking to them. And if you’re a fan of the Ultima Underworld world and characters, this obviously offers something that’s not available anywhere else. We’re looking forward to playing the game ourselves, to see if it lives up to its big promises.
Update 10:15AM ET: Added name of publisher, 505 Games.