For me, 2015 has been a fantastic year for this genre, even more so than 2014, which marked the renaissance of the old-school RPGs through crowdfunding with titles such as Divinity: Original Sin and Wasteland 2. This year, the RPGs that came out can be spread among three categories: the big AAA releases (The Witcher 3, Fallout 4 and Bloodborne), the crowdfunded titles (Pillars of Eternity, Serpent in the Staglands and Shadowrun Hong Kong), and the ones almost nobody knows about because they were developed by very small teams (The Age of Decadence and Underrail).
Out of all the titles that I’ve mentioned, three have really stood out for me: The Witcher 3, The Age of Decadence and Underrail. The first has been the game I have ever been most excited for due to it being the conclusion of Geralt’s story. The Witcher 3 has been one of the most memorable RPG experiences due to its amazing narrative, characters and atmosphere, despite the fact that the gameplay was lacking. After sinking almost 200 hours in it, I told myself “Wow. Let’s see if any other titles can best this.” And perhaps surprisingly so, there were two that did.
Iron Tower Studio (a team of less than ten people) has worked on The Age of Decadence for the past eleven years and the wait has been more than worth it. The game features brutal and yet very tactical combat, immense replayability due to the vast amounts of choices and consequences available and complex character customization and progression. It is a RPG which you can finish with a “class”, then start over with another and see a completely different story unfold. Again, I told myself that it was very unlikely that there could be another RPG in 2015 that would be better than this.
But the surprise of the year came from Underrail, a title of which I hadn’t even heard of one year ago. It has been developed for almost seven years by a Serbian programmer under the alias of Styg, who only had help from two other people (thus “forming” Stygian Studios) during the final stretch. From a games development perspective, this is an astonishing achievement: Underrail is a RPG that can take up to 100 hours on the first playthrough, and it lacks filler content such as the points of interest from The Witcher 3. However, that would mean nothing if the game wasn’t good. And it is more than that... Underrail feels like what Fallout 3 should have been, it is the spiritual successor of Fallout 1 and 2.
Perhaps the reason why I love it so much is how well all its systems work together: the character creation and progression is deep, with characteristics, feats and skills which allow for several different builds. The combat system takes advantage of this: all encounters are challenging and let you create your own strategy based on the build you’ve chosen. There were moments when I believed I couldn’t get past one area, but after giving it some more thought I always realized that I already had the necessary tools at my disposal. There are other systems that come into play: crafting allows you to create some of the most powerful gear – if you have the appropriate skills -, and stealth is a completely viable option, especially because the sound system in the game works very well. The game also features an interesting setting: in a post-apocalyptic world, the remnants of humanity live in the metro and have formed several factions with compelling ideologies but conflicting purposes – sounds like Metro, but it is more fleshed out from a narrative perspective and also very atmospheric -.
Even though the story isn’t as engaging as in The Witcher 3 and the choices and consequences aren’t as complex as in Age of Decadence, I’ve found that the way in which all of the game’s systems come together forms a very coherent mix which is tremendously enjoyable to play. For the ones out there who love old-school RPGs and especially the first Fallout games, Underrail simply cannot be missed. And as such, it is my favorite RPG of 2015.