Review: Underworlds for iPhone

Peter Cohen, Macworld
12 May, 2009
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The “dungeon crawl” adventure game is alive and well in Underworlds, the debut iPhone game from Pixel Mine. The spiritual successor to games like Blizzard’s Diablo, Underworlds is a true “hack and slash”-style role-playing game (RPG) with a lot to offer.

The guardian of a traveling caravan, you find yourself seasonally unemployed when the caravan’s owner decided to set up camp for a while. He tips you off to a nearby inn that needs the services of a strongarm like yourself, and that sets off a cascade of events that culminates in you facing the forces of Hell itself.

Underworlds has many of the trappings that action RPG enthusiasts have come to expect—you can create a custom character, equip your warrior with loot that the bad guys drop throughout the game; as the game progresses, better quality armour and swords are yours for the taking. One concession to simplify the game for the iPhone is that all combat is melee-based; you’re bashing skeletons and shambling monsters with swords, not using magic or ranging weapons like bows and arrows.

You’ll have to complete many quests in Underworlds as you fight the demonic hordes threatening to take over your world.

You can select from one of several portraits, including male and female characters, though that will have no effect on gameplay or abilities. It has no effect on sound effects or graphics in the game, either. It’s a bit unsettling to create a female character only to hear very male gasps and moans come from the character when she’s hit by a baddie. A minor quibble, I admit, but it’s distracting and took me out of the game.

As you progress through the game your character gains experience; with each new level you get points to spend increasing your statistics, such as strength, intelligence and dexterity—factors that improve your skill at fighting or using the items you find. You also can plow points into “feats” such as shield-bashing or smiting your foes with a whirlwind “Berserk” sword attack. You can also loot corpses, find traps and treasures, and more.

Teleport charms you’ll find along the way let you return to McTavish, your former employer, who’s only too happy to buy rare items from you and sell you items like stronger armour, health and vitality potions, and other objects you might find useful in your travels.

While Underworlds limits you to one essential “class” of character—there are no half-elf wizards or chaotic-evil mages to be found here—the skill tree lets you focus on specific areas. Boosting your intelligence, for example, enables you to unlock more feats. Improving your constitution, meanwhile, gives you more health points to work with as you’re taking damage from the hordes of undead that want to feast on your brains.

The game has taken some knocks from reviewers on the App Store for being short. I was hoping for more play-time, too. I’ll readily admit that I burned through Underworlds after only a few plays, not because it’s exceedingly short but because it’s extremely addictive—it occupied almost all my free time from the minute I downloaded it.

Four difficulty levels let you replay the game with variations, but there’s only one adventure to play, which makes me hope that Pixel Mine is working on either an expansion or an entirely new Underworlds adventure to play too. And if they are, I’m hoping they’ll let me import my existing character in true Dungeons & Dragons style, so I don’t have to start back at level one again.

Underworlds is very well-behaved; the game auto-saves if it’s interrupted (say, by an incoming phone call or the need to exit back to the Home screen). And it also asks permission to turn sound on when you first launch it, in case you’d like to play surreptitiously. There are two control schemes—one uses a “directional pad” or d-pad style of play that may be more comfortable for console players, and the other is a point-and-click style that I found to be inexact and more frustrating than fun.

There’s certainly room for improvement in Underworlds—the lack of character classes, some frustrating interface decisions, and fairly short gameplay are probably the most glaring issues. But as an authentic dungeon crawl RPG, Underworlds really hits the sweet spot, and especially right now—the game is on sale for $3.99, $2 off its regular price, as this review is posted—it’s worth picking up, if you’re yearning for a Diablo-style RPG on your iPhone.

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