Stop me if you've heard this one: after some unnamed cataclysmic event renders the surface unliveable, the survivors go underground to form subterranean societies built out of the bones of old world infrastructure like metro stations, tunnels, and bunkers. Then again Stygian Software's UnderRail isn't all that focused on an original premise; rather, the game operates as an homage to bleak, claustrophobic, post-apocalyptic Eastern European franchises like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Metro (Stygian Software are themselves Slavic, hailing from Belgrade, Serbia) - drawing from the Eastern Bloc's desolate and violent history as part of the Soviet Union - along with the first two Fallout games from which UnderRail borrows its isometric perspective, turn-based "action point" combat system, and vaguely familiar character development. As a new resident of one of the more stable bastions of civilization in the southern regions of the Underrail - a massive interconnected network of tunnels and zones - you are sent out to prove your worth to this colony with a series of missions each incrementally more complex and dangerous than the last. Eventually, I suspect, this current progression loop will be interrupted by some manner of calamity and the game will go off the rails as it were, but for the time being I've been hunting vermin, poking through crates and lockers, and barely holding my own against roving bands of lurkers and brigands.
UnderRail's most interesting gameplay choice is the alternative experience system it offers. Referred to as "Oddities" by the new game menu, under this setting the player will only earn XP by finding specific objects out in the field. These could be treasures found in containers in remote parts of the world, or they might be unusual trophies dropped from enemies. Higher-earning oddities will, of course, only drop from stronger foes or located in guarded, locked, or concealed locations. Each type of oddity has a set limit to how much XP they can provide: collecting more instances of that oddity thereafter will have no effect. XP cannot be rewarded any other way with this system, excepting occasional rewards for major quests: you won't earn any from defeating enemies or successful skill checks like lockpicking and hacking. In theory, this system is a little too abstract to make a whole lot of sense. In praxis, however, it forces you to think more like a scavenger; to make difficult risk vs. reward decisions about going off the beaten track despite the greater danger, or to avoid conflicts you know won't produce any valuable oddities (either because you've already exhausted that enemy type's oddity supply, or they don't drop any to begin with). There are still spoils you can obtain from such foes, but if you're already well-stocked and/or trying to preserve precious ammo for any crucial battles ahead it may well be a better plan to drop into stealth and avoid the encounter completely. It's definitely in the wheelhouse of a loot-loving player like myself who now has more reason than ever to invest in subterfuge skills like the aforementioned lockpicking and console hacking.
The more hours I put into UnderRail the more I've come to realize that specialist builds will play a much more important role for the mid- to late-game than in other genre contemporaries. While UnderRail strongly resembles early Fallout its difficulty curve has been much steeper, perhaps more in-line with a Piranha Bytes open-world RPG like Gothic, and it thus behooves the player to come up with a character development plan early on and then min-max their way towards it with each new level. That isn't to say that versatility isn't viable, but it seems prudent to pick a couple of stats as your "majors" and build a character around that focal point: high strength and constitution benefits a tanky melee type but not so much any other playstyle, and likewise going for the game's mage equivalent of psi powers means you should spend the handful of bonus stat points in intelligence and wisdom and, skills-wise, work with those that are boosted by those two stats like those from the crafting (making your own gear and meds) and social (persuasion or mercantile) categories to give yourself an edge in conflicts. The chief reason to specialize are the feats, however: many of the best ones, such as the highly damaging "snipe" feat for rifle-users, require some punishingly high stat requirements and there's only so many building points you have to start with and can acquire later (five points during character creation and, I believe, about four or five total from levelling up to the cap). The feats are what you base your builds on, as the powerful ones are what will allow you to remain formidable in later conflicts against better-equipped opponents. However, there'll be fights that you can't approach in your preferred way - say, if you're the stealth assassin type, there might come a surprise ambush where dipping into the shadows isn't an option - so it doesn't hurt to have a few contingencies in place. Specialize, but don't necessarily put all your eggs in one basket, is one lesson I've taken away from my time with UnderRail.
Combat will obviously be the ultimate smell test for a valid build, and the game has enough options even with just four weapon skill categories for a wide range of possible approaches: a gunner might have an assault rifle for range and shotguns for close-quarters, which both fall under the same skill category of "guns," while a dextrous rogue might consider the versatility of weapons that qualify for the "throwing" skill, such as poison-tipped throwing knives, energy-sapping caltrops that keep enemies at bay, or grenades for crowd control. I went with a gun type, not realizing that ammo is sold at a premium - UnderRail's not unlike the Metro franchise in that and several other respects - but there exist methods to mitigate the costs of keeping all my firearms fed with gun food, between maintaining and alternating a variety of gun/ammo types to making my own bullets in my downtime. Like Fallout, the most important universal stat for combat is the dexterity equivalent, regardless of your build: this is because dexterity determines the maximum number of action points you have to spend, which might make the difference between attacking twice or three times per turn - a significant advantage. A psi type meanwhile might not have to worry about weapons at all: they'll have enough debuffs and psychokinesis abilities to control the battlefield without ever drawing a gun, though it might take a few levels before they can rely on their brain magic alone.
UnderRail's punitive difficulty does make it a little more linear than I'd otherwise like; as even with the open-world aspect and a very robust mapping system that allows for personalized notes (such as "locked door (lockpick 30)" for future skill checks) it's often too risky to explore too far afield from the current quest objective, though you can certainly chance it if you're quiet enough. On oddities mode, sneaking your way past enemies too strong for your current level might prove more than valuable for swiping a few extra XP items and giving you an edge in the story missions to come, provided you can make it back out in one piece. The mapping system is strangely selective about what information it decides to retain automatically - it'll tell you which enemy types can be encountered there or if there's a vendor in the area, but it doesn't make it clear how many exits there are and in which directions - but I have found it awkward to bite off more than I can chew between the obstacles that are item degradation and encumbrance (sadly very present factors) and the moderately rare/expensive avenues for healing, unless you're patient enough (so to speak) to backtrack to the hub town for a free doctor's visit. Like a lot of these Eastern European grim post-apocalyptic RPGs, don't expect there to be a whole lot of conveniences and hand-outs; part of their whole aesthetic is fighting tooth and nail for every scrap of progress and wealth. (It isn't quite as hostile to new players as I'm making it sound, but with all the protag deaths I've racked up it's best not to underestimate it either. If you have your doubts, there's an easy mode that greatly ameliorates the risk of demise by significantly boosting the protagonist's health.)
I'm looking forward to playing more UnderRail and seeing what I can get away with; my recent playthrough of Elex was spurred on by the same rewarding sense of overcoming a significant number of hurdles despite the stacked odds (though to UnderRail's credit its hurdles don't include Elex's poor combat engine and technical faults). I'm curious to see how much further this current mission-based structure will go and if this home base will remain so throughout the game - I hope so, since I'm storing away a lot of heavy components and excess weaponry in my personal quarters - and I'm enjoying exploring the game's many systems for loot gathering, progressing through dangerous areas with stealth and the limited resources at my disposal, figuring out how deep I want to get into the crafting systems, and agonizing over every point spent during level-up in the hopes I haven't gimped myself in the long-term (which is more fun than it sounds, admittedly). As with Basilisk's Eschalon and Spiderweb's many tactical RPGs, there's a distinct sense that the devs believe that the golden age of CRPGs was some time ago and that there's a rich vein in those archaic styles still worth mining in full, adapting modern quality-of-life enhancements to sand off the rougher edges. Any player with a similar philosophy - the Dave Sniders amongst us - should feel right at home in the dark tunnels of UnderRail.
: 4 out of 5. (So far.)
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