Hands-on Alpha Preview
"I've played 'release' versions of games that are less polished than Underrail in its current state."

"They don't make 'em like they used to." We hear it all the time, but when it comes to video games, I say nonsense to the old adage. Maybe the triple A companies don't make 'em like they used to, but there are so many independent game designers out there now catering to an old school audience that these days; they definitely DO make 'em like they used to. So much so that the way they "used to" could just become the way they are making 'em.

And that's a very very good thing for old heads like myself. Companies like Spiderweb Software give me classic Infinity Engine-style games. Kickstarters pop up all over the place with new spins on old designs. And everything you think you lost, you find again.

Take Underrail, for example. When Bethesda grabbed hold of the Fallout franchise, there was great rejoicing. But for fans of the old gameplay style of Fallout 1 and 2, there was some real legitimate concern. While you knew Bethesda could be counted on to remain true to the spirit of the Fallout franchise, you also knew that the classic turn-based style was probably going to be replaced with a first person sandbox game more in line with the Elder Scrolls series.

Bethesda did a wonderful job by most accounts, but there can be no denying that the game was Fallout in theme only. The old, tile based, turn based gameplay was gone. And believe it or not, some of us missed that.

Since 2008, a single developer, Dejan Radisic, has been toiling away at a labor of love hoping to recapture the style and feel of the old Fallout games while adding some new twists to it. The alpha of Underrail is available now for public consumption as part of an effort to complete funding of the game, and I not only had a chance to play it, but a chance to discuss the game with Dejan himself.

"I started working on the engine late 2008. By the end of 2009, it was stable enough for the development of the game itself to begin. I think it was near the end of December 2009 that I created the first version of the main menu for the game.

"I love programming and on the other hand I love games, so I always hoped I would end up making them for a living. Back in the past, I wasn't sure this would happen, though, as there isn't really a game development industry where I live, but with the advent of the indie game market and digital distribution, it has ended up happening."

Dejan, like me, loves the isometric RPGs of old. Some of the towering achievements of RPG development use this style and point of view, adding their own gameplay twists along the way. While the first person mode of the Bethesda games has started to come more en vogue, Dejan looked to bring back something lost.

"For the longest time, I wanted to make an isometric engine for the purpose of making an RPG in it. I love the feeling the 2D isometric view gives. It allows you to pack as much detail into a scene or area as you want and to strike a good balance between apparent 'gaminess' immersion into the world."

When starting up Underrail, you really do feel like you've been taken back in time from a gameplay perspective. But thematically, the game is very much in a "post-apocolyptic" future where the surviving remnants of humanity use underground subway stations to establish colonies. Dejan does not shy away from the comparisons — he embraces them.

"I'm a fan of the Black Isle Fallouts myself, and I wanted to an extent to recreate the atmosphere of those games — the ruined, barren, and sparsely populated dystopian world. Also, when I developed the turn-based combat system, I adopted some basics from Fallout."

The game uses an "action point" style of turn based combat, for example. Everything costs action points, and you have a certain number of them you can use before the baddies get a chance to do their thing. Firing a gun, moving around, using an ability — everything takes away from the pool of action points that replenish the next round.

But there's more going on here than just a new Fallout game for more modern times. Dejan is doing things to not just differentiate Underrail from Fallout 1 and 2, but also pay homage to other games that he enjoyed growing up. For example, I asked him about a sequence in the game where you are sneaking through a ventilation shaft and a picture-in-picture view is employed.

"For one, I'm trying to improve on the subterfuge aspects of the game. So in the Underrail, you have security cameras that you can access, patrolling enemies, traps, and vents that you can crawl through and peek out of. Here I drew inspiration from another one of my favorite games — System Shock 2. Like in System Shock 2, Underrail is a game where you will often find yourself going through hostile areas where, in addition to the unfriendly humans, you will also be threatened by automated security systems, dangerous creatures, and biohazards.

"On the combat side of things, I attempted to implement a more complex combat system with special attacks, abilities, utility, and psi powers. This is in contrast to Fallout, which was pretty simple (not in a bad way!). I also want to make the creatures in Underrail more diverse, so most creatures you encounter in the game will have at least one special trait or ability that will change the dynamics of the encounter and force you to adapt and think of ways to deal with it."

Unlike a lot of previews you'll read on RPGFan, we did not have any kind of exclusive access to the game. Anybody can go online right now and purchase the alpha of Underrail, which includes a copy of the beta, the full game, and future updates. In playing the game itself, I initially found it quite challenging compared to more contemporary games, getting smoked by the first pair of rats I came across. This was entirely due to carelessness on my part, but I asked Dejan what he thought of the difficulty of the alpha.

"In my opinion, the game is only hard if you're careless or just very unlucky. But obviously I'm not qualified to measure the difficulty, since I know the game mechanics inside out."

Consider me appropriately chided. But I agree with this assessment — the more I realized the encounters require planning and caution, the less trouble I had staying alive. This game is difficult in the best possible meaning of the word. That said, I wonder if gamers who are unfamiliar with that style of gaming will have trouble with this. Dejan was ambivalent on that point in a compelling way, speaking to his game design philosophy.

"I'll probably introduce a difficulty slider, but I'm not sure how I'd feel about that. I'm not the biggest fan of multiple difficulty settings, and I feel the need to reward those who would play on the normal (not easy) difficulty. Maybe through a special encounter or quest that's not available on lower difficulty settings or something like that. We'll see."

Something else you'll notice while playing the alpha is that the game feels extremely polished already. I've played "release" versions of games that are less polished than Underrail in its current state. I asked Dejan what else he's looking to include.

"There's still the metro system to be implemented that will allow you to travel by train between stations. That and a lot of content: areas, items, creatures, NPCs, quests, etc still remains to be added."

Surprised by this answer, I asked Dejan when we could expect to see the full release and on what platforms, understanding of course that this is a difficult question to answer for a small operation.

"I would like to release the full game by the end of this year, but I can't make any promises. I'm usually too optimistic in my assessments.

"Windows release is first, and then we can look into Linux/Mac versions. If that works out, I'll look into this iPad thingamajig," he says with a smile. "I'd like to bring Underrail to all platforms that would make sense to have it on, but I can't really make promises, as I don't know exactly what that would involve on the technical side yet."

But here's the unique thing — you don't really need to wait if you want to try it right now. Underrail is currently available for alpha purchase at underrail.com. In this author's opinion, at $9.99, the game is in much better shape than other games I've been forced by the cruel taskmasters at this website to review at this or higher price points, and I'd recommend it already. Considering the fact that it is a work in progress, if you enjoy the old Fallout games, you owe it to yourself to explore the Underrail.

© 2013 Stygian Software. All rights reserved.

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