When I initially heard about Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss being
remade for the Pocket PC, I thought everyone would be jumping to replay
this game. Then I quickly realized that a significant number of people
out there never played the original on the PC over ten years ago in
1992. Back then, RPG titles on the PC were going full tilt but the one
type of RPG game that got newcomers interested were tile-based RPGs in
the vein of Eye of the Beholder. With simplified combat, a
comprehensive cast of AD&D monsters and massive amounts of leveling, it
was the Diablo or Baldur's Gate of that era; the popular choice for RPG
novices. But tile-based RPGs seemed artificial. You moved in
controlled 'steps' like little squares on a board game throughout the
maps and much of it, even the much touted Dungeon Master (re)release
proved to be fairly vapid. Underworld, however, changed all that by
merging a comprehensive RPG experience with a first person perspective.
Development-wise, Underworld had very little to do with Richard
Garriott. Some people say it had more to do with Warren Spector (Deus
Ex, Ultima VII: Serpent Isle, System Shock) and indeed, Underworld
reflects the type of game he always is associated with. (I'll add that
others maintain that the genius for Underworld lie with Doug Church and
the Looking Glass crew). The game was headed up by Blue Sky
Productions, which later turned into perennial critics' favorite,
Looking Glass Studios. It is still based in Britannia though but the
backdrop is hardly as interesting. The story places you in the shoes of
the Avatar, who once again must travel to Britannia only this time, the
jump through the moongate lands him a sticky situation where he
witnesses the kidnapping of a princess. Unable to prove he is the
Avatar, he's chained up and has to answer for his crimes to the local
baron. For Ultima fans, this isn't the first time the Avatar has lost
all of his special status but the baron figures if the character you
assume is truly the Avatar, he'll be able to venture into a treacherous
prison dungeon where the princess was last seen. Oh yes, and he doesn't
mention the small insignificant detail that no one has ever escaped from
the dungeon and you'll soon find out not many people dare to venture
very far below it either. It's a tepid start but it lets the (original)
developers of Underworld to free the game from Ultima lore, where the
Avatar is usually assisted by his heroic band of companions, the near
omnipotent Lord British and a host of custom Avatar-weapons.
Underworld is like a lengthy survival horror flick. It's able to
maintain intensity and fear. On close inspection of the visuals and
sparse audio, you're not sure why you ever get that feeling. The same
developers came to that crux when developing System Shock 2. How do
they make a game scarier? It might not have anything to do with special
effects at all. First, they make your character slow and vulnerable.
That's what happens in Underworld, where the Avatar is not the brash
swashbuckling hero that he was in other Ultima games. Secondly, scarce
resources play an equally important role. If you have to count every
blade, arrow and health potion you come across, the tension will
eventually set in. Reaching from one supply depot to another while
monsters lurk, is more panic-stricken when you know, to take a clichéd
movie expression, "every shot must count". That's the secret behind
games like System Shock and to a certain extent, Resident Evil.
Underworld just happens to predate both of them.
Many of the base concepts that made franchises like System Shock, Thief,
or even more loosely speaking, Deus Ex special, are found in their
infancy in Underworld. This is a PC-style RPG game, not heavy on plot
or story. It places a premium price on open-endedness and the ability
to craft your own destiny. Everything in Underworld is alive: Perform
a quest and you might get an item from a character. You can, however,
steal it from the character - just don't expect them to be friendly to you
afterwards. In fact, you can kill said person outright and simply loot
the required item but don't expect friends of the deceased to give you
safe passage afterwards. That's the type of thing that truly separates
this handheld RPG and RPGs typically seen on console handhelds like the
Game Boy Advance.
It comes to no surprise that an environment this dynamic is filled with
intelligent characters. Much of the Underworld lore and the underground
society that thrives underneath the surface are presented in
conversations and text. There's a lot of it and you can typically
engage in expansive conversations with friendly people you come across.
The various races are separated into different territories. While you
might be automatically hostile to some, there's always chance to barter
with sympathetic characters and engage in discussion. As you delve
deeper into Underworld, friendly people become scarcer and that makes
the previously met NPCs even more memorable. A lot can be done through
talking in Underworld. Choosing forked conversations, you can improve
your standing with a certain group of people or potentially alienate
Groundbreaking work when it was released a decade ago, these facets of
Underworld are still unrivaled in modern games. However, the
audio-visuals haven't aged as well. The viewing distance in Underworld,
always ominously dark and short, hasn't been extended even with the new
Pocket PC hardware. With eight levels, you'll find the slow walking
speed and short viewing distance is what makes (and made) the game so
cavernous. Despite advances in technology, this port persists to run in
a tiny window on the screen. Proportionally blown up on the PC, it
might be acceptable on a 14-17" monitor, but on a 3-4" LCD screen, it
leaves much to be desired.
The greatest drawback of Underworld is the new interface. When released
initially on the PC, it was one of the first games that had mouselook.
On a handheld, the controls are all over the map. Sometimes you have to
use the keyboard to tap in responses to conversations. At other times,
you have to use the handheld keys to move while you use the stylus for
turning or looking. It's a chore to manipulate or organize objects
because of their diminutive size and also the inaccuracy of the stylus.
It all really means that Underworld will probably be a game you'll want
to play sitting down rather than on the go. It's slow paced and the
remake, unlike Breath of Fire on the Game Boy Advance, has no
enhancements like a run feature to speed play up.
In spite of these flaws and a few crashes, I kept coming back to
Underworld. Choosing to wrestle with the archaic controls, I wanted to
be immersed into the game's mythos and you can potentially be lost for
hours in this claustrophobic world. This is a strange title for premier
Pocket PC developer, Zio Interactive, to take on. If I were the
developer, I'd much rather take on something simplistic like Ultima IV,
V or even VI than Underworld. This game is still faithful to Ultima but
not as convincing and engaging as Underworld's PC sequel, which included
the Avatar's companions, Lord British and the Guardian storyline.
However, it opens up the developer to embark on ambitious projects.
Hopefully, one day, what people call one of the best Ultima games,
Ultima VII and Spector-graced Serpent Isle, might actually become a
reality, thanks to the Pocket PC. But we have to take into account the
size. Underworld already weighs in at fourteen megabytes, with
cinematic sequences and speech installed.
In many ways, Underworld continues to be a pioneer title. It's not
about getting the newest weapons, slaying the biggest monsters or
watching a romance or quest evolve beyond your control. The recently
released PC and Xbox epic, Morrowind, has meaningful conversation trees
and the ability to barter with NPCs. Those concepts are included in
Underworld and continue to make it a masterful piece of work. Focusing
on skills, dialogue and exploration, Underworld is the antithesis of the
'leveling up' RPGs we find today. It was able to best the tasteless Eye
of Beholder then. I would argue it even bests a lot of second-rate RPGs
churned out now.