App O’ The Mornin’: Underworlds Review

I’ve been avoiding writing about RPG apps until I had really spent some time with them. I’m an RPG player from way back. The first game I ever wrote about was Eye of the Beholder, and I’ve kept apace of the genre for the past 20 years. I came of age along with the original D&D and SSI Gold Box games, and I still think it’s probably the most potent genre in all electronic entertainment. Not all of the developments were to my liking (Diablo never quite twirled my baton), but it’s one my favorite types of game.

I wasn’t quite sure about app RPGs when I first started playing them. The form-factor seemed incompatible. By that I mean the physical structure of the device and the primary control input (onscreen touch controls using your thumbs) took a little time to get used to. I’ve gotten used to it, but it still doesn’t feel like a natural way to interact with this kind of game. This, along with the reduced size, is one of the trade-offs with mobile gaming. I get that.

Although I’ll eventually write about some other RPG apps, I’m starting with Underworlds because it’s the one I’ve spent the most time with. This is a Diablo-clone, with no pretentions to being anything else. PC gaming has been full of them for years now (my favorite is Torchlight) and they’re almost a genre unto themselves. The pattern is essentially action-RPG: push a button to kill, grab the stuff that drops, and move along. It’s a loot and level formula that has a simple, visceral appeal, and its very simplicity makes it a good fit for mobile devices.

Underworlds is developed by a company called Pixel Mine, based in Austin, Texas, which is the former home of Richard Garriot’s Origin Systems. I would not be at all surprised to learn that some people from the Ultima team worked on this game, since it has that kind of visual style. It looks good for an mobile isometric RPG, with a wide field of view and nicely detailed levels.

You work your way through the game by picking up quests, defeating monsters, and gathering stuff. There’s some dialog and a rough stab at a narrative, but this is mostly just to provide color and context for the slash-n-hack gameplay. It does its job by providing the atmosphere and then staying out of the way. It’s not a particularly long game, but it should provide a few hours amusement.

The real problem is that it’s locked into a fairly narrow format for an RPG. There’s really no class or character development, and no ranged weapons. This in itself reveals a problem with the smartphone format, since I haven’t really seen an RPG that handles ranged weapons well. Solomon’s Keep does an okay job, but it still has an awful lot of “spray-and-pray” thanks to the dodgy aiming of its ranged combat.

Underworlds compensates for this lack of class diversity by providing state upgrades for strength, dexterity, constitution, and intelligence, and a set of “feats” which give you special attacks. By deciding where to spend your points, you customize your character to fit your play style. It may only be a choice between a character with high health who can endure longer skirmishes, and a character with a better kind of attack, but it’s something.

Pixel Mine has made an interesting first step into the world of RPG apps, and I’d like to see them take it further. Underworlds is entertaining but limited. Along with some other strong titles, it shows the potential for RPG games on this platform. I’m hoping they’re working on a sequel that’s longer and has a more full-blooded character and class system, but for now, this is a darn good way to get a taste of RPG action on the go.