Underworld Ascendant Unveils New Art Style

We’ve seen a little of Underworld Ascendant [official site] in action since OtherSide Entertainment crowdfunded their revival of ye olde Ultima Underworld games, but we’ve not seen its final look. They’ve been talking about what they call an “authored look”, an art style inspired by the unreality of tabletop games. Today Otherside shared a few new screens showing exactly what that means for the game’s world and enemies, starting with a chubby little skellington.

(Click for bigger versions of this and the one below, yeah?)

This style is the idea of art director Nate Wells, who joined OtherSide last year after yonks working on games including Looking Glass’s Thief, the BioShocks, and The Last of Us. In November he explained that digging up his old D&D books made him want to “recapture a retro sense of fantasy, fantasy the way our inner child remembers it” and turn away from ‘photorealism’:

“So for Ascendant, what if the world bore the Authorship of a tabletop game? Think of the old lead figures, the miniature play fields and what if Ascendant used that philosophy of everything being hand crafted and looking hand crafted? Natural, man-made… all of it. All of it looks like it was sculpted by an artist. That and bringing back some of the levity to the fantasy. We don’t have to be so deadly serious and bleak. A little more whimsy, and a little less brooding.”

I like the look of the world, the vivid colours and unreal scenes cut up with dark shadows, but textures and models seem a bit… blobby? That old fantasy style he speaks of was always scratchy and hard-edged to me, pencil sketches and cheap models. How that skeleton behaves and moves will make a huge difference, mind. I’m still delighted by how scampish skeletons in Dark Souls feel as they leap, roll, and spin.

Anyway! Underworld Ascendant is still crowdfunding through its own store, where folks can get access to prototype builds (and the full game, eventually) if they pay enough. The prototype is due to be updated with the new art style later this month.

Oh, and hey, remember that Warren Spector joined OtherSide too, yeah?


  1. Stevostin says:

    Ultima Underworld I & II are still my best games ever. Count me as a hardcore fan.

    Now with that in mind: those screens convinced me not to have any interest in Underworld Ascendant. They’re incredibly ugly (I love the old illustrations too. This is not quite there). Moreover they show a space that rather reminds me of star trek and silly hollywood sci fi from the sixties than any of the inspiring dungeon of the original games. Or for that matters, of modern games successful at reviving ye old flame such as Grimrock or Arx Fatalis before that.

  2. J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    I looked closely at the first screen shot and thought, “That has a Bioshock vibe” before I read who the art director is for the game. I think it’s the giant statue in the background that had me thinking that.

  3. joe80x86 says:

    Seems to me (I never played UW2) that UW1 was very bleak in it’s art style.

  4. Psychomorph says:

    Looks like cutscene graphics from 90’s games.

  5. Rwlyra says:

    Sadly, it looks terrible for me :(
    Nothing compared to Grimrock or other kickstarted dungeon crawlers.

  6. KDR_11k says:

    Ew, that’s hideous. Is it supposed to emulate bad CG from the early 90s? At first glance it looked like it had black outlines for that ugly not-quite-celshaded look Borderlands and co have going on but that just seems to be the harsh lighting.

    • Faults says:

      Haha, that was my immediate thought as well. I kind of like it, it’s nice that they’re eschewing the usual grimdark trappings of the fantasy genre in exchange for something that looks positively kitschy. I hope they include an option for some Soundblaster-esque MIDI tunes for that authentic mid-90s fantasy CRPG vibe.

      That said, these screenshots look horrendously cluttered and difficult to read.

  7. andrewsk says:

    Oh no. Count me in as really disappointed. I kick-started this and kind of regret it now.

    Are there any more screenshots? Bloody Hell :)

    • Darth Gangrel says:

      That’s what you get for giving people the freedom to disappoint you. I don’t do kickstarters, but thinks it looks rather good, which seems to be a unique opinion here. I won’t turn it down based on these screenshots.

  8. MeteorBear says:

    So they dont really want to make a spiritual successor to Ultima Underworld is what this reads to me.
    Underworld was dark, scary, thick with atmosphere and yet beautiful in its own unique way.
    Its disappointing to see all these bright ambient colors everywhere that just magically emanate from nothing. I imagine theres another level where its all green and blue hues saturating everything. Its sad this is the current trend for fantasy videogame art direction.

    • joe80x86 says:

      Yeah, I am not feeling the Underworld vibe from the screen shots. It’s just too colorful.

    • Stardog says:

      Huge Underworld fan, but this art style just alienates me.

  9. Darth Gangrel says:

    “a chubby little skellington” Chubby? Why be so mean, perhaps it’s just big boned.

  10. slerbal says:

    Oh dear. I have to agree with what everyone else is saying… that looks hideous and stylised in the least attractive way I could imagine :(

    I’ll see if the final game can make up for it, but it is a bit of a body blow (especially as they are supposed to be making System Shock 3 after this…)

  11. Mr_Blastman says:

    The skeleton looks like something in Maximo, not Ultima Underworld…

  12. Frank says:

    Looks okay to me (another backer), though I’d prefer that most swords and skellingtons not be glowy, since it’s cheapened if it’s all over the place. Also, if they’re going to go with distorted skeletons, I hope their living humanoids have similar proportions.

  13. Jetsetlemming says:

    That second screenshot is so… busy. Reminds me of paperback book covers that try to jam pack everything that could represent the novel within on the front. It makes me feel a little nostalgic, but at the same time I have no idea how I’m supposed to play that.

  14. ZippyLemon says:

    I quite like it, but I don’t know Underworld. Is this game going to be lighthearted in tone?

  15. Stardog says:

    Something like Legend of Grimrock would’ve been better.

    They should probably use Unity’s new image effects such as SSAO and the temporal AA when taking screenshots.

  16. zal says:

    First concern: wow that really is a ton of ambient light from/for everything. darkness and claustrophobia were hallmarks of the first game, though less present in the second.
    Second concern: do they really only have one sword model to show off? cause it looks like the “player” sword and skele sword are identical.
    Final concern: I haven’t played in years, was there a single fiery sword in the first? I don’t even think the demonslaying artifact sword gave off light.

    The Memoirs of Sir Cabirus had a very distinctive art style they could’ve worked from, if they’d wanted to stay true to form while still saving on their budget. I’ve got it sitting right here at my desk as a matter of fact, and they couldn’t be more different.

    I feel sorry for them, as I imagine I am their target audience, if anyone is (rabid fan, didn’t kickstart)… and they are missing the mark handily if that’s the case.

    It’s a shame they can’t tell the difference between darkness and gritty-grimdark. and that you can have one without the other.

  17. Caiman says:

    Note to devs: forget trying something different, everyone just wants the same stuff each time. Except better.

    • Herring says:

      Forget the auto-mobiles; just get everyone a faster horse.

    • ElElegante says:

      Weird, huh? It’s almost as if they pitched their game as a modernized version of a classic game.

      • tomimt says:

        Did they ever say it would look like that classic game though?

        • ElElegante says:

          Not explicitly, no. They did, however, post a bunch of concept art that looked nothing like this and strongly implied a more down-to-earth style.
          Note that I’m still super-psyched for the game. As long as Otherside can pull off the gameplay (and I have no reason to believe they won’t), I will play the heck out of this. I’m just… disappointed, is all.

          • Caiman says:

            Bear in mind this is still a long way off, so there’s a lot of iterating to do yet, not to mention plenty of atmospheric effects, but I think the point they’re trying to make is a slightly less cliched look (and also, frankly, one that’s achievable with their budget). The archway in particular looks more like the cover art on the original game.

  18. Lars Westergren says:

    I like it, actually. I hope it doesn’t get changed due to negative feedback.

  19. Premium User Badge

    ooshp says:

    I really like the art style, but the screenshots are pretty ordinary. All the concept art looks great, along with the models they’ve shown.

    It’s worth remembering that this is a prototype so the in-engine stuff isn’t going to look anything like the final product. The lighting in particular is way off.

  20. The Sombrero Kid says:

    If I’m honest, i don’t really like it. I also don’t care as long as it plays well. Looking glass had a long history of ugly games (even for the time) that ran like dogs and played amazingly. Maybe they’re taking the spiritual successor to looking glass literally?

    I’m more concerned that they went with Unity tbh

  21. ElElegante says:

    I don’t mind a more stylized look, but this is just ugly. The second screenshot in particular looks like the equivalent of a 2004 MySpace page.

  22. BathroomCitizen says:

    You know, my first reaction was “EEeeew, that’s that cartoony thing?” – but the more I look at it, the more it convinces me that’s cool.

    Anyway, the realistic style was also cool. I’m a bit sad that they’ve dropped that. Yes, there’s the argument that everything has to be realistic now but, you know what, we haven’t really got any realistic-looking dungeon crawler right now – so it would’ve been welcome to me.

    Oh, well, I’m just happy they’re making a spiritual successor to Ultima UW.

  23. tomimt says:

    It’s a good thing they aren’t afraid of using colors, like most devs still are today. What makes or breaks this particular style is how it’ll look like in movement.

    • Harlander says:

      Yeah. Motion changes everything. I’ll hold off on judgement until some video’s available.

  24. Whelp says:

    Looks awesome. I want this (and System Shock 3).

  25. Skulldugg3ry says:

    What gets me, is that they used the previously amazing dark, gritty concept art to obtain funding, but then hired an art director who changed the art style to cartoonish, plastic table-top figurine style. It significantly changed the tone of what I spent a good deal to back. The art director literally said he wants to go back to the style of back in the day when games were made by people who weren’t artists and could only “kinda draw”. Great. That sounds great.

    I was led to believe I was funding a new Underworld with the modern art style that it was sold with on Kickstarter. Maybe not pixel per pixel representation, but at least that style you know, because it isn’t 1992 anymore. I was so on board and pumped about what a dark and gritty new Underworld could be. So disappointed with this. :(