Game Over Online ~ UnderQuest

GameOver Game Reviews - UnderQuest (c) Garga Games, Reviewed by - Fwiffo

Game & Publisher UnderQuest (c) Garga Games
System Requirements Pocket PC
Overall Rating 77%
Date Published Thursday, May 9th, 2002 at 08:35 PM

Divider Left By: Fwiffo Divider Right

UnderQuest is a first person shooter that pays homage to the classic swords and sorcery motif. In many ways, it reminded me of John Carmack's first project, Catacombs 3D. I remember seeing it in the magazine 'Compute!', in an ad by some company like SoftDisk. The deal was, I had to send $10 or $15 US, I forget the exact amount but it wasn't too little nor too much, in money order or cheque to this mailing address. In return, I'd get a diskette with these two games, one of which was Catacombs. That was something daunting for an 11-year old. I could barely get to my bank much less buy a money order. My parents, thinking it was one of those scams, offered to help me pay for it (after much pleading on my part) and I waited for days. Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months until one day, someone dropped off a diskette at my door. It was a quaint little first person shooter, back when the term first person shooter meant practically nothing. Its only fault was the fact that EGA graphics simply didn't catch on and when VGA graphics did, the much better known Wolfenstein was born.

UnderQuest is a title that comes from an earlier life on the Casio Pocket Viewer (basically a glorified organizer cum PDA) in basically LCD style black and white. It has made the jump, in my analogy, from 'EGA' to the 'VGA' of the Pocket PC and the transformation is startling. Prior first person shooters on handhelds I've had experienced with were often slow, with action degenerating into pixilated slideshows at times. UnderQuest, perhaps owing to its original platform, is amazingly fast. If first person shooters were ever judged by the frames per second, UnderQuest would be at the head of the pack on the Pocket PC platform. Quick loads and saves are instantaneous and the engine never really suffers from any significant slowdowns.

You assume the persona of Boyan, a young wizard who has the noble (or ignoble, depending on how you look at it) of restoring an unnamed fairy tale land back to the forces of light. His arch-nemesis is Varadin, and UnderQuest takes him through a series of catacomb like dungeons to face this inevitable evil. Varadin had previously wrested control of the kingdom from the incumbent king, Kroum. Apparently the people there did not read much of Lord Byron. Byron's quotation: absolute power corrupts absolutely, is poignantly true. Varadin succumbed to the forces of dark magic and it is Boyan's mission to save the realm, as well as saving this dark lord; if that's permissible. UnderQuest's architecture seems spiritually inspired from games like Heretic (the very first one) or Hexen. The ninety-degree architecture is reminiscent of games produced at that time. Many of the textures shown are dark, stony and filled with Gothic skull ornaments. The creatures themselves also reflect this theme. They amount to all sorts of undeads, spiders, maligned beasts and creatures.

The level design, unfortunately, is not as smart as what Raven had achieved with the Doom engine. Each level of Varadin's castle has a magic portal located somewhere and to use the magic portal you have to acquire a certain amount of keys, carried around by a wraith-like 'Keylord'. Like the arcade classic Gauntlet, these 'Keylords' are merely scattered around the dungeon. They give the player an excuse to rummage through the entire level, killing whatever is in the way. Serious Sam was a game that relied on keys and switches to carry on the plot of the game, but it managed to avoid monotony because of expertly designed maps that maintained the flow of action. In UnderQuest, you'll spend a considerable amount of time wandering into long hallways that turn out to be unexpected dead-ends. Luckily, there is a useful automap in the game, but its placement is rather peculiar. It pops up right in the center of the game, making it hard to use the map and fire at monsters in front of you in tandem.

Your wand serves as your only weapon. It has unlimited ammunition and as you slay more monsters, your experience gains translate directly into the power of your attacks. Without any power-ups in UnderQuest, the only way to get extra health is to find wandering friendly sorceresses loyal to Kroum; a nice touch to the game. I always found it more interesting to have friendly AI. Much of the action though, is decidedly old school. The AI creatures are single-mindedly bent on destroying you so you can perform time-honored shooter tricks like circle strafes as well as backing up into other rooms to ambush them. Your sole weapon, unfortunately, reloads very slowly thereby making combat not as fast-paced as say Serious Sam. As you progress into the later levels, the extra experience gives you greater power and this correspondingly reduces the number of volleys you need to launch at creatures.

There are numerous scripted sequences in UnderQuest. The series of secret doors that open the second level is an early example of a map designer having fun. Unfortunately, there's very little creativity beyond that and with only ten levels in total, the length of the game rests heavily on Gauntlet-style key finding and mindless wandering through the catacombs themselves. In the audio department, there's very little in the way of ambient sounds in UnderQuest. One of things that made Doom so popular was the presence of a persistent soundtrack. I believe every person who considers him or herself a first person shooter fan remembers the tune behind E1M1. Without a soundtrack, the wandering sequences of UnderQuest can get fairly long in tooth, especially if you made the wrong turn somewhere early.

On the other hand, there are some technical excellences that are unique to this title. UnderQuest has some lighting effects that help reinforce the dark Gothic-like nature of the game. It's not as splashy as what you would expect from Q3A engines or UT but is a definite plus, pushing UnderQuest beyond the sophistication of Wolfenstein and into the realm of Doom. Clearly, this engine shows tremendous potential for the Pocket PC. It only needs a few extra gameplay options: sophisticated maps, variety in objectives, extra special effects and perhaps even a multiplayer component.

At $10 USD, the allusion to Catacombs is particularly pertinent. UnderQuest for me was very much like Catacombs; a little sneak preview of what's to come for the platform. When you look at the list of first person shooters for handhelds, it's a very short list. The list of first person shooters that actually play and perform well on a PDA screen is even shorter. Garga Games, the developers of UnderQuest, have the technical side of the first person shooter seemingly worked out. Whether their next title will be as big as Catacomb's successor, Wolfenstein, is something I am eager to find out. And this time around, I won't have to bug anyone to get a money order.

[07/10] Addictiveness
[13/20] Gameplay
[13/15] Graphics
[09/10] Interface/controls
[09/10] Program Size
[02/05] Sound
[03/05] Discreetness
[13/15] Learning Curve
[ N/A ] Multiplayer


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