UnderQuest is a first person shooter that pays homage to the classic
swords and sorcery motif. In many ways, it reminded me of John
Carmack's first project, Catacombs 3D. I remember seeing it in the
magazine 'Compute!', in an ad by some company like SoftDisk. The deal
was, I had to send $10 or $15 US, I forget the exact amount but it
wasn't too little nor too much, in money order or cheque to this mailing
address. In return, I'd get a diskette with these two games, one of
which was Catacombs. That was something daunting for an 11-year old. I
could barely get to my bank much less buy a money order. My parents,
thinking it was one of those scams, offered to help me pay for it (after
much pleading on my part) and I waited for days. Days turned into
weeks. Weeks turned into months until one day, someone dropped off a
diskette at my door. It was a quaint little first person shooter, back
when the term first person shooter meant practically nothing. Its only
fault was the fact that EGA graphics simply didn't catch on and when VGA
graphics did, the much better known Wolfenstein was born.
UnderQuest is a title that comes from an earlier life on the Casio
Pocket Viewer (basically a glorified organizer cum PDA) in basically LCD
style black and white. It has made the jump, in my analogy, from 'EGA'
to the 'VGA' of the Pocket PC and the transformation is startling.
Prior first person shooters on handhelds I've had experienced with were
often slow, with action degenerating into pixilated slideshows at times.
UnderQuest, perhaps owing to its original platform, is amazingly fast.
If first person shooters were ever judged by the frames per second,
UnderQuest would be at the head of the pack on the Pocket PC platform.
Quick loads and saves are instantaneous and the engine never really
suffers from any significant slowdowns.
You assume the persona of Boyan, a young wizard who has the noble (or
ignoble, depending on how you look at it) of restoring an unnamed fairy
tale land back to the forces of light. His arch-nemesis is Varadin, and
UnderQuest takes him through a series of catacomb like dungeons to face
this inevitable evil. Varadin had previously wrested control of the
kingdom from the incumbent king, Kroum. Apparently the people there did
not read much of Lord Byron. Byron's quotation: absolute power
corrupts absolutely, is poignantly true. Varadin succumbed to the
forces of dark magic and it is Boyan's mission to save the realm, as
well as saving this dark lord; if that's permissible. UnderQuest's
architecture seems spiritually inspired from games like Heretic (the
very first one) or Hexen. The ninety-degree architecture is reminiscent
of games produced at that time. Many of the textures shown are dark,
stony and filled with Gothic skull ornaments. The creatures themselves
also reflect this theme. They amount to all sorts of undeads, spiders,
maligned beasts and creatures.
The level design, unfortunately, is not as smart as what Raven had
achieved with the Doom engine. Each level of Varadin's castle has a
magic portal located somewhere and to use the magic portal you have to
acquire a certain amount of keys, carried around by a wraith-like
'Keylord'. Like the arcade classic Gauntlet, these 'Keylords' are
merely scattered around the dungeon. They give the player an excuse to
rummage through the entire level, killing whatever is in the way.
Serious Sam was a game that relied on keys and switches to carry on the
plot of the game, but it managed to avoid monotony because of expertly
designed maps that maintained the flow of action. In UnderQuest, you'll
spend a considerable amount of time wandering into long hallways that
turn out to be unexpected dead-ends. Luckily, there is a useful automap
in the game, but its placement is rather peculiar. It pops up right in
the center of the game, making it hard to use the map and fire at
monsters in front of you in tandem.
Your wand serves as your only weapon. It has unlimited ammunition and
as you slay more monsters, your experience gains translate directly into
the power of your attacks. Without any power-ups in UnderQuest, the only
way to get extra health is to find wandering friendly sorceresses loyal
to Kroum; a nice touch to the game. I always found it more interesting
to have friendly AI. Much of the action though, is decidedly old
school. The AI creatures are single-mindedly bent on destroying you so
you can perform time-honored shooter tricks like circle strafes as well
as backing up into other rooms to ambush them. Your sole weapon,
unfortunately, reloads very slowly thereby making combat not as
fast-paced as say Serious Sam. As you progress into the later levels,
the extra experience gives you greater power and this correspondingly
reduces the number of volleys you need to launch at creatures.
There are numerous scripted sequences in UnderQuest. The series of
secret doors that open the second level is an early example of a map
designer having fun. Unfortunately, there's very little creativity
beyond that and with only ten levels in total, the length of the game
rests heavily on Gauntlet-style key finding and mindless wandering
through the catacombs themselves. In the audio department, there's very
little in the way of ambient sounds in UnderQuest. One of things that
made Doom so popular was the presence of a persistent soundtrack. I
believe every person who considers him or herself a first person shooter
fan remembers the tune behind E1M1. Without a soundtrack, the wandering
sequences of UnderQuest can get fairly long in tooth, especially if you
made the wrong turn somewhere early.
On the other hand, there are some technical excellences that are unique
to this title. UnderQuest has some lighting effects that help reinforce
the dark Gothic-like nature of the game. It's not as splashy as what
you would expect from Q3A engines or UT but is a definite plus, pushing
UnderQuest beyond the sophistication of Wolfenstein and into the realm
of Doom. Clearly, this engine shows tremendous potential for the Pocket
PC. It only needs a few extra gameplay options: sophisticated maps,
variety in objectives, extra special effects and perhaps even a
At $10 USD, the allusion to Catacombs is particularly pertinent.
UnderQuest for me was very much like Catacombs; a little sneak preview
of what's to come for the platform. When you look at the list of first
person shooters for handhelds, it's a very short list. The list of
first person shooters that actually play and perform well on a PDA
screen is even shorter. Garga Games, the developers of UnderQuest, have
the technical side of the first person shooter seemingly worked out.
Whether their next title will be as big as Catacomb's successor,
Wolfenstein, is something I am eager to find out. And this time around,
I won't have to bug anyone to get a money order.
[09/10] Program Size
[13/15] Learning Curve
[ N/A ] Multiplayer