It is tradition for cRPGs to pay homage to the classics of the genre, and Underrail is no exception. The influence of the first two Fallout games are clearly incorporated into the design of the game in its world, its gameplay, and its storytelling. Yet Stygian Software had no desire to simply copy the Fallout series’ essence: they took it, reshaped it, and made a setting that can most aptly be called a post-post-apocalyptic underworld. It is a unique, sometimes futuristic, sometimes primitive, subterranean world that wounds up becoming one of my favorite settings, and by proxy, cRPGs.
So here’s the scenario: life on the surface is long over, the result being the relocation of humanity into the underground. What happened? No one knows for sure. No one really cares. After that, however, came another catastrophe. That one, you can actually learn about in-game. The result of all that is the current living condition of what is left of humanity: a sprawling cavern system connected by a metro, linking up independent communities known as station-states. Some are large and thriving (if you can call it that), while others are small and are in a struggle to continue existing. Your character begins the game in one of the more major station-states named South Gate Station. You name your character, pick your starting ability and skill scores, select your XP system, and choose normal for the difficulty. Or easy. Or hard. But for the love of God, don’t set it on DOMINATING. The description serves as a disclaimer explicitly stating you are not guaranteed to be able to complete the game. You will not be able to change the XP system or difficulty level after character creation. Once you’re done, the ruling council of the city will boss you around, giving orders until you’re effectively given free control over what you can do and where you can go. Good luck out there.
The game hates you
Your first experience with combat will likely come in the form of a pack of rathounds mauling you while the body parts exposed to the chain-linked fence behind slowly become diced meat diamonds. The game ain’t easy, and the early game is especially unforgiving. You’re fortunately given an ample arsenal of sniper rifles, shotguns, and SMGs; knives, swords, and spears; and traps, grenades, and psionic powers. You’re unfortunately stuck with a pistol in the early game, with the hopes that you will have at least a 10% chance to hit the cannibal barreling toward you. I may be exaggerating about that, but it really feels like that’s how your luck goes with the accuracy RNG sometimes. This is not a game where you have a party to back you up: almost all of your fights will have you fighting alone against however many enemies that are after your sorry hide. You can’t just run and gun through these encounters, and because it’s a turn-based game, every decision you make matters. You have to use every item you have on hand to gain enough advantages to overcome your would-be murderers. Choose to hoard your equipment, and you will have a short playthrough.
On a similar note, crafting is essential. The gear you find will never be as good as the gear you craft. But crafting isn’t easy either. It’s not terribly complicated, but it’s not as simple as Skyrim where you just throw two iron ingots into a forge to make a dagger. First, you must acquire a blueprint for what you want to make. Doesn’t matter if a spear is just a wooden stick with a pointy piece of metal at the end because by God you’re getting that blueprint. Then, you must find the components for it. You often find components by either buying them, scavenging them off of dead corpses, or shifting through trash. And then, you may finally craft the item … you do have the required skill for it right? There’s more to crafting of course, but the gist is that if you want to get into crafting, you’ll have to dedicate precious resources into it. The rewards, however, are well worth it when the stat difference between a stock shotty and a homemade boomstick is what saves your life.
Work for your XP
Allow me to briefly explain character stats. You got abilities, which are just your character’s attributes: Strength, Dexterity, Agility, Constitution, Perception, Will, and Intelligence. They’re fairly self-explanatory, will and intelligence affecting psi regeneration (for psionic powers), and having a high ability score lets you pass certain checks in dialogue and world interactions. You get one ability point every four levels. You got skills, which lets you do stuff that require skill. They can range from skills for self-defense such as guns and evasion to non-combat skills like chemistry and persuasion. One level up nets you 40 skill points to spend, and with every even level up after the second level, you get a feat point. Feats are perks that give you bonuses, but they usually have some sort of requirement like a skill check before you can unlock them.
But to level up, you need XP, and you better not be using the classic XP system. No, the proper way of gaining XP is through oddities, part of the oddity XP system. These bad boys can be found all across Underrail, be it in the form of some poor dog’s tongue or a soup ladle you fished out of a toilet. It doesn’t matter how many zoners you cut down; you will not get a single point of XP unless you go out there and find those oddities. The XP you get from oddities isn’t bad, especially for the early game, but each oddity can only be studied a limited number of times before you must find new ones, meaning that in order to improve your character, you must explore.
To explore or not to explore
There’s lot of areas to visit, including the big places such as Core City. That’s a whole map in and of itself. But besides the tracks that lead toward where you should be going, you have a lot of optional sidepaths you can make a right turn into like a meandering cave system or a broken-off train track. These paths are almost guaranteed to have dangers within, be it man or beast. Lots of them too. But power through, and you might just make it to the end where you’ll discover a hidden base or a forgotten outpost … or nothing. Yeah, that’s definitely an issue I have with the map design: sometimes, you would go through a sidepath with a good number of enemies you have to gun or beat down just to find out that it’s a dead end. I don’t know if I completely missed something whenever that happened to me, but it was just frustrating when the route I took involved sprinting through the territory of death stalkers, and if you don’t know what a death stalker is, then you’re in for a treat. On the bright side, at least my world map looked prettier after the journey.
The people ain’t exactly friendly …
Now, cRPGs tend to either be a fantasy setting or a post-apocalyptic setting. In a fantasy setting, you tend to find a lot of noble NPCs, lawful good knights and all that, who speak in flowery language, act with selfless intentions, and put the toilet seat down after they’re done. Well, this isn’t a fantasy world. It’s a nightmare. The average person in Core City isn’t one of the oligarchs with enough money and influence to live in luxury. They’re zoners, lean and impoverished. They’ve never read stories of shining knights and pretty princesses because they can’t read. The world around them is oppressive, and it shows in their dialogue and personalities. They use slang, act intimidating, and want nothing more than for you to go away. And it’s great. There’s a lot of dialogue, but most of the lines are short and brief to reflect the nature of Underrail’s denizens. It also may be short and brief because centuries of a subterranean lifestyle tend to cause words in the English register to become extinct, but talking like a pompous prick tends to get you zoned out fairly quickly anyway.
The story is interesting in that you could potentially go through the entire game without understanding anything at all about the overarching lore. Many side questlines and areas contain information that adds to the worldbuilding experience, but they can be missed if you choose to avoid them. In the required areas you must go through, there are interactables (like computers) and NPCs that would be more than happy to give you expository knowledge, but you may either lack the skill checks to learn about them or simply ignore them and get straight to the point. If you choose to try and piece together Underrail’s history, you will discover a plot that is riddled with uncertainty and misinformation, forcing you to form your own speculations on what exactly happened. When a game’s story makes you that engrossed in it, then the writer did their job right.
I didn’t talk about the Expedition expansion because with how long it is, it’s almost another game. It’s the same quality as the base game, with many memorable moments like the Ferryman’s philosophy and the misadventures the Dude takes you on. This game is rough, both around the edges and in difficulty. Yet if you can look past that, this could be one of the top cRPGs you’ll ever play. Even if a developer doesn’t redefine the genre, they can still create a game that is the epitome of what a cRPG is all about. That is what Underrail felt like to me.
You can find Underrail on Steam here.
You can also find Underrail on GOG.com here.