My detailed review of UnderRail, an isometric turn-based indie combat RPG with plenty to offer

UnderRail is an isometric, as oldschool as it gets, turn-based CRPG set in a post-apocalyptic future where the surface has been rendered uninhabitable and the remnants of the human population now live, and war against each-other, in metro tunnels and caverns surrounding them.

It features an in-depth character creation system with plenty of skills and perks to chose from as well as a nice variety of options when it comes to dealing with problems, everything from talking your way out of them to simply shooting the problem in the face.

 

The freedom of choice when it comes to character building is both UnderRail's greatest strength and greatest weakness. One one hand you can make some truly unique characters with interesting combat styles but on the other, and especially if you're new to the game, you can screw yourself over in ways that will only become apparent 10 hours in.

I played through the game with a psychic character that could absolutely annihilate any sentient being but was completely helpless against machines or those resistant to mental attacks. I managed to compensate for this massive flaw through trap making and chemistry which gave me access to traps and bombs but if I had taken any other crafting profession my character of 20+ hours would either be screwed or forced to do some really awkward fighting in order to get through a few of the later missions.

However, had I chosen a guns/crossbow orientated character I wouldn't have to worry about anything because there are plenty of different guns and bolts you can use to adapt to any situation that might arise, not to mention that the stats that benefit them tend to be the same whereas my Psychic character's will power does him very little when it comes to shooting a gun.

Don't get me wrong though, I love the amount of choice you have, its just that a rookie CRPG player could completely ruin their playthrough before it even began. What I would do to remedy this is add pre-built classes you can choose from (while still keeping the full customization option) so this way new players can start out in UnderRail with a balanced foundation from which they can further improve their character.

There are a lot of skills and talents to chose from in UnderRail

There's a whole lot more where this came from

While there are plenty of non-combat options and talents you can take, UnderRail is at its core a COMBAT focused RPG so make sure you plan your build accordingly. The battles are done in turn-based fashion and the system as a whole is well polished and allows for a lot of different approaches. Personally it reminds me heavily of the Fallout 2 battle system what with all the different items, skills and weaponry you can employ against your rather tough enemies.

And when I say tough I don't mean that lightly. UnderRail is an incredibly hard game even on normal difficulty because the enemies are numerous, ruthless and able to pull off the very same tricks as you. In order to guarantee your survival you will need to prepare for the battle ahead of time. If you know you're going to be fighting beasts that frequently use poison then bringing a couple of antidotes will make your life a lot easier whereas if you know you're going to be engaging a street gang its probably a good idea to ditch your sneaking outfit and put on some good old fashioned kevlar to stop yourself from looking like Swiss cheese.

Positioning is also crucial as you want to leave each battle with the minimum health lost given that healing items are both expensive and somewhat rare. What this meant for my physic & trap based character was luring enemies around corners where they would either step on a mine or some poisoned caltrops allowing me to then either fear them through the poison again or simply focus one down at a time.

Using caltrops and traps to stop the enemy from attacking

Nothing like beginning a fight with caltrops already beneath the enemy's feet

Another nifty trick I learned is that animals aren't the best when it comes to operating doors and fences so if I ever had to fight a pack of burrowers or any other beastie I would use doors and fences as a way to re-set the fight if it ever goes south or to simply shoot the bastards while they desperately try to claw through it.

All of this might sound excessive but as you progress through UnderRail the enemies will become so hard to deal with you'll need to make sure you use every advantage you can get your hands on in order to crush them. It is possible my build was simply underpowered and that UnderRail isn't as hard as it seems to be but given all of the abilities the enemies have later on I doubt it.

Despite looking like it, I'm not actually complaining about this, on the contrary I found the difficulty refreshing because too often these days you can just completely break a game's balance simply by leveling up a couple of times. UnderRail always keeps it just hard enough that it forces you to think outside the box while never so hard that I found myself getting frustrated with constant reloading.

Using psychic powers to divide and conquer mutants

Using psychic powers to achieve the classic "divide and conquer" tactic

The interesting thing with combat is that despite it being the biggest part of the game it will yield no experience for you if you play under the recommended "oddities" experience system. Rather than gaining experience through the slaughter of everything and anything the oddities system instead rewards you for exploration and finding unique items in the world.

This might sound insignificant because the system just moved exp generation from one place to another but in actual gameplay this means that talking your way out of problems or even using stealth to completely avoid encounter is a valid idea. During the early hours of my playthrough I simply couldn't defeat robotic enemies with my mental abilities so I resorted to sneaking around them which involved skulking through the shadows, crawling through vents and dodging cameras.

Its very refreshing to be able to go through a game using all of your skills to their full effect and still feel like you're accomplishing something rather than simply becoming underleveled and weak due to avoiding combat.

Using stealth to sneak by encounters rather than wasting bullets

*cough* Not even close

Besides simply gaining experience you will also find a ton of loot either on the corpses of your enemies or in various lockers or chests but the problem here is that most of the stuff you find is related to crafting and you can realistically only invest so many points in to crafting early on in your play-through before you gimp your character too much when it comes to combat. I only had two crafting disciplines, trap making & chemistry but even those two were constantly kept slightly underleveled simply because I needed to focus on my actual survival by picking more combat orientated skills.

In other words you are going to be picking up a lot of junk you can't use and can't sell because the merchants are only going to ever accept a couple of pieces at a time. So in the end you'll go through a lot of effort to sneak through a bandit camp for some loot only to gain a measly 1 experience and a bunch of heavy crafting components for a profession you don't have. I would've preferred if there was more actual loot in the game so I didn't have to rely on shops for all of my armor & weaponry.

The crafting system on the other hand is pretty clever, allowing you to break down various components to their base elements and then combining those according to recipes to create items of interest. The system is about as realistic as it gets so in order to create poisoned caltrops you'll need some biology skill to extract the poison in to a vial and then use your mechanics skill to sharpen metal scraps.

Crafting in UnderRail can be a fairly involved process that requires you to gather ingredients from all over the place in order to complete the recipe you're working on but once you do manage to finish it you'll get multiples of the item you crafted making the whole thing feel quit satisfying because the payoff at the end is huge. Once crafted the above mentioned caltrops recipe will yield 10 sacks which can last you a good few hours even with frequent use, now that is value!

You will acquire a ton of crafting items you simply can't use when playing UnderRail

So... much... junk! Also burgers, but mostly junk.

Stylistically UnderRail looks pretty good. Obviously it doesn't compare to massive AAA games like The Witcher 3 but the art style is nicely done and rather unique among RPGs these days. Most importantly, the darker tones present in every scene help reinforce the atmosphere of danger and decay making the whole experience quite immersive.

The one complaint I will level against UnderRail's graphics is that enemies in corners or tight areas are almost impossible to see. This can be easily fixed by giving enemies an outline when they are standing behind something but as of right now you have to do a lot of mousing around to figure out where the enemies are and how many of them are there.

The music works in a similar fashion to the graphics with a big focus on ambient noise, somber tones and immersion building. While that works great when you're out exploring some dark and musky cave its a bit disappointing that the music doesn't kick up in tempo very much when you're in the middle of combat. In the end, despite being fairly well done, I ended up muting it in favor of my own music.

UnderRail's graphics aren't all dark and gloomy though

UnderRail isn't all gloomy tunnels and ventilation ducts, there are some rather pretty areas as well

Lore wise I consider UnderRail's world incredibly interesting with all of the different factions and monsters that popped up ever since the surface became uninhabitable. I spent a lot of time questioning anyone willing to talk to me about the history of the place and for the most part I wasn't disappointing with the revelations or the quality of the writing.

On the other hand the main story was a bit lackluster, not bad by any stretch, but a bit too generic considering how fascinating the world is. Another problem I had with it is that a lot of the quests I undertook had very little personal engagement for me, I was simply out there doing an insanely difficult and dangerous job for someone with very minimal pay as a reward. Only in the middle to late game did I start becoming personally involved in things, though I won't talk about the specifics due to spoilers.

I would say that the story in general was alright but it was definitely the combat challenges, character advancement and exploration opportunities that kept pushing me to go forward despite my specific build encountering a lot of problems later on, rather than the the urge to complete my missions.

A protectorate base in the middle of nowhere

Meet the Protectorate

I would say I enjoyed my time with UnderRail. It might be a bit clunky in some areas and require a far better tutorial for new players but as a whole it offers a deep level of customization with plenty of ways to approach any given situation and a very interesting world for you to explore.

At its core UnderRail is an oldschool Combat RPG and as such comes with all of the positives and negatives as the genre itself so if you're someone that doesn't enjoy difficult turn-based combat or the need to optimize your character's build and equipment then I would stay away from UnderRail.

On the other hand if you enjoyed the RPGs of old and love the idea of pitting your character against difficult encounters as you explore a world riddled with danger you will find plenty of joy with UnderRail.

You can grab UnderRail on Steam

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