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Early Access: A Look at UnderRail

A look at an Early Access title on Steam, UnderRail. A throwback at isometric RPGs.
This article is over 10 years old and may contain outdated information

Being a PC gamer who’s going through a gaming drought, interesting titles are becoming harder to find. Watch Dogs got delayed and Dark Souls 2 only comes out on the 25th of April. While looking through the featured list of Steam, I see six Early Access titles, all of them sporting price-tags of $20–and that’s when I start feeling ill.

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Back in the day, closed betas used to be free, or you were paid for actually testing an unfinished game. In 2014, however, it’s apparently become acceptable to sell an incomplete game, at the full retail price of a complete indie release, with most of them becoming boring very quickly due to the increasingly slow updates when the feeling of novelty subsides. If one were to criticize these releases, since they paid for an incomplete title, it’s justified. It’s in Alpha. You will get a good, complete game someday.

I decided I’m going to start looking at some of these Early Access games as they are now, while keeping in mind the frequency of their updates, the content of those updates, and the direction the game is taking. The consumer deserves to be informed of just what they are getting, mainly when they’re dropping $20 for an unfinished product.

So just what is UnderRail? Well, think about Metro 2033 mixed with Fallout. A turn-based RPG set in a postapocalyptic setting where humans were driven into metro tunnels and caves underground. There are mutants, there’s scavenging, there’s psionics. It’s also very, very hard and unlike most of it’s peers, costs $7, UnderRail was on version when this article was written.


In these types of games the player makes the story, and all the game can really offer is an interesting playground. On that front, UnderRail delivers.

So what is the story in UnderRail? Well, the game is set hundreds of years into the future. Humans have been reduced to living underground in either metro tunnels or caves they’ve dug themselves. There’s a lot of hostile lifeforms and humans are no longer at the top of the food chain. You experience this directly, with even the weakest hostile creatures, rathounds, being able to pose a very serious threat to the player.

The player character is simply one of the many inhabitants of the UnderRail. He or she took a test recently to join a human settlement called the SGS (South Gate Station) and succeeded. The main storyline focuses on running several jobs for the SGS after an earthquake made several tunnels collapse.

The more interesting aspect of UnderRail and what sets it apart from most postapocalyptic games is the inclusion of Psionics. Humans have evolved the ability to use psionics over the years, some being born with more potential than others. However, even people with potential sometimes never awaken it, or know they have it. Awakening one’s psionic potential can take years of practice, or a combination of chemicals for a more intrusive approach. There are currently three disciplines in the game: Thought Control, Psychokinesis and Metathermics.

It’s hard to talk about the pacing or the quality of the narrative when it’s not included in the game.

Humans aren’t the only ones with psionics though. There are creatures that have developed it in the tunnels as well. Since the game is still not complete, I am not sure just how the developers intend to use psionics in the story. However, there is already a side-quest that does it right. There is an island on the underground rivers of UnderRail that is said to be haunted.Sailors who stay there for too long usually are never seen again. Are there evil spirits in UnderRail leading sailors astray? Maybe. But there are several mindshrooms and psi-beetles in Silent Island. Too many. There might just be something in the island assaulting the minds of its visitors and ensuring they never leave.

The main chunk of the story isn’t in the game yet. That’s the main problem with this Early Access title. It’s hard to talk about the pacing or the quality of the narrative when it’s not included in the game. I don’t know what direction the narrative is going to take, or what elements it’s going to have. All I can say is that what’s in the game right now is good and hope they keep producing content with the same quality as what’s currently available.


The last time I saw an AP bar was in 1998. Combined with the rogue-like nature of UnderRail, it makes for a very challenging game.

UnderRail plays like the old Fallout games. If you’ve never played them, they are turn-based RPGs with an isometric view. Every round you are given a set number of Action Points, and everything in the game consumes them when in battle. Be it movement, attacking or using an item. Where it differs from Fallout is the inclusion of psionics that function as the game’s magic system. Psionics never miss, but cost Psi. Psi doesn’t regenerate over time and the drugs to recover your Psi bar are expensive and rare.

You have as much HP as enemies of the same level as you. The guns you use deal the same damage as the bandit’s if he’s using the same model you are. There’s only one of you and there are five of them. Chances are you’re going to die horribly. 

As is common in RPGs your character levels up as you progress through the game. UnderRail takes a different approach when it comes to handle Experience Points, however. When you first start the game you are given the option between two modes. The standard EXP mode you see in most games, that rewards you with experience every time you complete a quest, kill an enemy, or use a skill like lock picking. Or the way the game is meant to be played called Oddity mode. This is unique to UnderRail, with the character picking up oddities from enemy corpses and containers spread out just about anywhere in UnderRail, making it possible for a character that avoids combat to manage just as well as one that always engages in it. Oddities become the only source of experience, and since quests often offer material rewards that you will want due to the difficulty of the game, they don’t discourage players from completing every side quest they can.

There is no handholding. You have as much HP as enemies of the same level as you. The guns you use deal the same damage as the bandit’s if he’s using the same model you are. There’s only one of you and there are five of them. Chances are you’re going to die horribly. 

It’s been a very long time since I’ve had to savescum in a game. Saving with every step I take, loading every time something doesn’t go the way I like it, or an encounter doesn’t go as smoothly as it could because I miss that 95% chance to hit skill shot. UnderRail is relentless when it comes to it’s difficulty, with non-human enemies, even the weakest ones, posing a challenge for the entire currently available campaign.

Resources are limited. Money doesn’t come by easily. Ammo is scarce unless you find someone using the same gun you are, and gear you find out of shops is always degraded. You have to choose between selling it, recycling it for metal, or keeping it for when you can afford buying, or crafting, a repair kit later. 

Some skills aren’t worth leveling yet since, since they are only used once or twice within the game with direct benefit to the player.

Gear does not equal success. The gameplay does a good job of conveying to the player just how brutal the world of UnderRail is, as even when fully geared with high-end equipment and weapons, the player is never truly invincible. Remember the assault rifle you got from that bandit some tunnels back? Ever thought about how he got it? Chances are if you’re not careful, someone else is going to take it from you. After all, if you managed to kill him with nothing but a handgun, a more well equipped bandit will have an even easier time.

 Due to the incomplete nature of the game however, it also has its pitfalls. Some skills aren’t worth leveling yet, since they are only used once or twice within the game with direct benefit to the player. Given the game’s difficulty, when leveling and assigning skill points one needs to think very carefully given how unforgiving the game is. However, even in its unfinished state, the game’s features are rock solid, and one can only hope that they will get better as development continues.


The tunnels are dark, the caves are damp and every bandit loves Sex Pistols.

When I first launched UnderRail the graphics looked a bit weird to me. The character models didn’t really look like sprites, but they didn’t look like 3D models either and stood in this weird space in between. It wasn’t unappealing, simply unusual, and as I played the game I started to grow fond of it.

Caves look dark and same-ish, so do the tunnels, but I suppose that is to be expected. Metro tunnels aren’t supposed to be bright and vibrant or well decorated. That does not mean that every area in the game looks alike though, with different sections of the SGS headquarters looking different and the available towns not having the same buildings every time.

I absolutely love the sound in UnderRail as it made me feel like I actually was in a metro tunnel. It sets a very good atmosphere both with the music and the available background noises. If there are enemies nearby, they sometimes have distinctive noises one hears while traveling the tunnels that immediately alerts players. Be it the skittering of a psi-beetle of the howl of a rathound.

Final Thoughts and Summary

TL;DR? This is the place for you.

I liked this game. I liked this game a lot, even though it’s still clearly unfinished. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? We’re paying for an unfinished game, when we could be buying anything else. When it comes to Early Access though, UnderRail is by no means the biggest sinner. The game isn’t trying to cash in on the Early Access trend, like some other titles, and I am looking forward for the full release. Even in it’s incomplete state, the quality of the content available is very good. One can only hope that the standard of quality remains the same during the rest of the development cycle.

The game’s last update was in January, with the update previous to that having been in September. The updates are slow, but they did bring new things and not just bug fixes. The last update was what brought the Oddity system as well as a couple of new areas and items, while the next update will bring a new town, expand on one of the existing ones and, according to the dev diaries, will start touching on the main plotline of UnderRail that we haven’t been able to see yet.

Unlike many other Early Access titles, though, UnderRail is priced at $7. It knows the direction it’s heading in and it is very obvious that the developers like the game they’re making. Mark my words. When it is complete, UnderRail will be a great game. I would wait until more content has been added before investing my money on it though, unless you want to contribute to the development cycle. If all you want is a good game to play, wait until at least the full campaign is implemented or for the full release.

Early Access: A Look at UnderRail
A look at an Early Access title on Steam, UnderRail. A throwback at isometric RPGs.

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A 21 year old Portuguese physics major with a strong passion towards video games and tabletop roleplaying. Just watch your wallet when around him. Austerity changes people.