Indie Time: Swords and Sorcery — Underworld Gold

Longtime readers may recall that I was quite impressed with Might and Magic Book One, a game originally released in 1986, when I played it for the first time a few years ago. Impressed enough, in fact, that I honored it with the very first History Lessons post on this blog. Well, it turns out I’m not the only one who likes that particular brand of old-school role-playing. Swords and Sorcery — Underworld Gold is an homage to the first two Might and Magic games, created (as they were) by a single person.

Now, the word “homage” does not fully capture just how similar Underworld is to those early games. The six-character party, the first-person turn-based movement, the 16×16 grid maps, the combat system, and even many specific spells are pretty much copied from the first Might and Magic games. In fact, the original version of Underworld had almost no graphics, just like Might and Magic Book One. Underworld creator Charles Clerc later made a slew of design changes and bug fixes, and hired an artist to redo all the graphics, resulting in the newer, shinier Gold edition.

Actually, let’s talk about those graphics first.

For the most part, I like the art. The visuals for the environments are simple and clear, and there are some great still images for special events, like a meeting with this pirate:

The problem is in the depiction of female characters. Once again, we see the fantasy cliche of having scantily-clothed ladies everywhere. There’s a woman in a platemail bikini on the title screen. Character portraits for elven women show them wearing next to nothing. And many enemies in the game suffer the same fate. I feel like I’ve had to point this kind of thing out a lot recently, and it was discouraging to see it here, because I was otherwise quite enamored with the art. And it’s not the case with every woman in the game; Stewardess Caroline, for example, is appropriately attired:

But for every case like that, there’s another like this:

I found that this detracted from an otherwise enjoyable game, and every time I’d get really caught up in my adventuring I’d suddenly face another example that spoiled the fun somewhat. I actually posted about it over in the forums for the game to see if the art was going to change in the sequel, which is currently under development. This started a brief discussion with the game’s creator, in which he explained that a seductive appearance was intended to be a theme with the demonic characters in the game, both male and female. And it’s true that it arises most often in connection with demons and undead, but I still felt it was skewed towards female characters. I don’t have many screenshots for comparison, but here’s a pair:


I think there’s a bit of a gender imbalance there, but I suppose I could be biased.

It’s a shame, because in the end, the character and enemy art is incidental to the game itself, which I really enjoyed. It managed to instill that same urge to explore and discover that I felt when playing Might and Magic Book One, and it provides a far more accessible way to sample the charms of that type of design. Importantly, despite its close resemblance to the Might and magic games, Underworld does have its own unique flavor. The differences are subtle, but I never felt I was simply playing a Might and Magic ripoff. Underworld is definitely its own game.

For those who haven’t played the earliest entries in the Might and Magic series, it’s worth going over some of the gameplay elements. The game begins with rolling one’s characters, although there is a pre-made party that can be used instead. I’d advise rolling your own, if you have the patience for it, because using characters you’ve created yourself will make you all the more invested in their development, which is one of the game’s joys. There are six character slots and six classes available, making it convenient to take one of each. I did so and was not disappointed; at certain stages some of my characters were less useful, but they all had chances to shine. My rogue was very strong in the early game, fell behind in the middle and became powerful again in the end, whereas my archer went from being my weakest character to my strongest in the late game. My least favorite was my paladin, who acted as a hybrid fighter and healer. He never learned to hit as hard as my knight, but it was useful to have a second character who was able to heal others when my priest was knocked out, and by the time he learned the most powerful spells he was useful to have around.

The party explores an interconnected set of 16×16 grid maps in a first-person view, in turn-based fashion: movement is one square at a time, in one of the four cardinal directions, with 90-degree turns to change direction. The game features an automap feature, so you won’t be required to draw maps by hand as in Might and Magic Book One. The environments are also less threatening in Underworld; there are fewer traps and other devious obstacles that made mapping such an important aspect of Might and Magic. Instead, there is more of a focus on story, something that was almost a background distraction in Might and Magic. Might and Magic had an open world where anything could happen, but Underworld is more focused: locations and enemies make sense in the context of the world and what’s happening in it, which gave a very different feel to my adventures.

The story itself is not that interesting — a demon is out to destroy the world, basically — but there are a lot of things happening on the side that kept things from getting boring. Unfortunately, these don’t show up until a little later on, and in the beginning I was imagining the game to be more limited in scope, providing a mostly linear adventure that focused on battling the undead. The opening is certainly the weaker part of the game, and the only time I really felt the need to grind for levels and equipment, but it’s worth pressing on. If you try the game, make sure to get a few maps in at least, and things will get a lot more lively.

Combat, which happens often, is pretty much taken straight from Might and Magic, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s mostly text-based, with a list of the enemies and your party, but has a good amount of tactical depth. Party members and opponents can be within melee range or not, which changes their options; those in melee range cannot use a ranged attack (except for archers, who can) and certain spells will only affect enemies in melee range, or only those out of it. For example, a fireball can only target enemies outside melee range, because otherwise it would hit the party as well. Underworld does make a few small changes to the battle formula, including extra tactical options for moving in and out of range, and a set of extra skills for certain classes make later battles more interesting — for example, archers gain the ability to attack multiple targets for reduced damage with their bows.

I’ll give an example: one memorable fight featured a single powerful enemy and an army of healers. There were seriously about 50 healers hanging around, even though only ten can be actively engaged in the fight at any given time. I couldn’t do enough damage to the leader to take her down in one round, and she’d promptly be healed by her supporting troops immediately afterward. The healers weren’t too resilient, but each time I downed one, another came in from the reserves, and meanwhile the leader was wreaking havoc on my party. The key turned out to be my rogue. She can go into stealth mode instead of attacking, and then execute some nice special moves the following round. One of them, learned after gaining some levels, is a Stun skill, which incapacitates a monster for a short period of time. By using Stun on the leader, I was able to keep her out of the fight while my sorcerer and archer took out multiple healers each round with spells and multi-target attacks. But my rogue can only enter stealth mode when at full health, so after each successful stun I had to have my knight or paladin use the Protect option to shield her from damage until the next round when she could enter stealth again. My priest hung back to heal and revive unconscious characters.

That’s just one example of interesting tactics, but there are many more, especially when spellcasters learn the higher-level spells. Knock enemies out of melee range to prevent them from attacking, shield the party from projectiles to force ranged attackers to engage, incapacitate enemies, inflict damage over time, cause enemies to fight each other… there are lots of options, and I never tired of combat even though it was quite frequent. Some areas tend to feature the same enemies over and over, and thus require the same tactics to defeat, but this is a minor complaint when the combat overall is quite varied.

You’d be surprised how much content fits into the game’s 20 maps. It’s enough for a lengthy adventure full of buried treasures, tricky puzzles, and a lot of people to meet, friends and foes alike. So even if the main story isn’t exactly new fare for a fantasy game, it’s well executed and challenging. The world is not exactly open — as the title implies, you’ll spend most of your time in the Underworld, since the towns have sealed their gates to keep the monstrous hordes out — but there’s enough to do in the various locations that I hardly noticed that they strung together in more or less a straight line. The stronger focus on storytelling coupled with the simple joys of exploring and building up a party in meaningful ways make for a compelling game.

New players who are unfamiliar with the early Might and Magic games may still stumble in some places, though. While Underworld is certainly easier to pick up than the games that inspired it, it does retain some outdated interface issues. It runs at a fixed 1024×768 resolution, and the interface was clearly designed for keyboard only. Mouse control is supported, but it just replaces each keypress with a mouse click. This means Underworld can easily be played with one hand if necessary (using the mouse or keyboard), but many actions require several keypresses and quickly become tedious. The worst offenders are inventory management and spellcasting, with spells divided into separate levels unnecessarily. But at least you don’t have to consult the manual to look up the spell lists. It’s still a good idea to read the manual before playing, however, as certain mechanics will not be obvious to new players, such as the need to visit a trainer to level up, or the need to keep a stock of holy water for your priest’s spells. Also, I initially didn’t realize that my characters could learn special skills when leveling so for a while I was unaware of my new abilities. There’s a message on leveling up informing you of new skills, but it’s easy to miss. Fortunately, Underworld creator Charles Clerc is very responsive to user suggestions and he’s actively releasing new patches, including an updated manual with full skill lists that came out during my playthrough. These updates are likely winding down, however, as he shifts his focus to developing the sequel, which promises an open overworld to explore that is many times the size of Underworld. He even put together an old-school world map, and the towns from Underworld only take up a tiny corner. I’m definitely looking forward to it.

So, if you read my History Lesson on Might and Magic Book One and thought it sounded interesting, but didn’t relish the extreme oldschool measures like DOS emulation, limited ability to save and having to draw your own maps, Underworld is a great alternative. It’s even on sale for another week. Know that there will be a plethora of scatily-clad women within, but there will also be an engaging adventure that aptly demonstrates the appeal of the early computer role-playing games. If that sounds intriguing, grab it while the sale lasts. Or after, since it’s not that expensive at regular price either. Happy adventuring!

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