1997 – Descent to Undermountain

Back in the mid-90’s, Interplay’s internal teams were working on two CRPGs: their big bet was the eagerly awaited Descent to Undermountain, while the other was a side-project named Fallout.

This may sound weird today, so some context is needed. Interplay scored a hit in 1994 by publishing Descent, a 3D zero-gravity FPS were you controlled a spaceship and could move in any direction. Around the same time the company bought the license to make games based on AD&D, and thus a bold idea was born: a fully 3D Dungeons & Dragons multi-player dungeon crawler based on the Descent engine!

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While a clever business decision, the technical side was a disaster. Unfamiliar with the engine, the team struggled and the game was delayed for years, then suddenly rushed out for 1997’s Christmas – without multi-player (which was still listed on the box). Worst, it was practically unplayable, with constant crashes, slowdowns, enemies floating in mid-air, a brain-dead AI, unclimbable ladders and many other serious bugs.

Even if you got the game to work, combat was a mess. The AD&D rules were crudely adapted into a real-time Action-RPG, as monsters and the player just keep missing each other until someone scores a lucky dice roll – in which case a single blow can kill your character during the first several hours.

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Similarly, you can play as a Fighter, Cleric, Thief or Mage (or even multi-class) – with iconic spells like Fireball, Invisibility and Feather Fall. But until you level up a few times, you’re limited to one spell per day. After that, your options are to battle monsters with a dagger or to find a (rare) safe place to rest.

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There isn’t much enemy or environment variety, but at least the setting and lore are both well employed, with Undermountain, a massive dungeon beneath the city of Waterdeep, being a great location for a CRPG.

Composed of 4 hubs and several interconnected dungeons, Undermountain is filled with traps, hidden passages, optional areas, a great soundtrack and NPCs with unusual quests and dialogs. The dungeons are also well done, although too relying on illusory walls.

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Sadly, any quality to Descent to Undermountain is buried deep beneath a barely working engine, game-breaking bugs, muddy graphics, tedious combat and many unfulfilled promises. Felipe Pepe

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