Back in the holiday season in 1997, Interplay Productions released Descent to Undermountain, a new Dungeons & Dragons PC game hotly anticipated not only because it was a new AD&D game, but because it promised to be a 3D roleplaying experience using the Descent 3D game engine. Many gamers did not bother to wait for the magazine reviews, as the last true AD&D RPG had been Strategic Simulations, Inc.’s 1995 classic, Ravenloft: Stone Prophet, and the intervening years had seen only fighting and strategy games released based on TSR’s many game worlds. They were to be sorely disappointed.
Descent to Undermountain began well enough with a deep, multi-screen character generation program. The player began the process by choosing one of six character races (human, elf, dwarf, half-elf, halfling, and drow) in either gender. As this was AD&D 2nd Edition rules, each race had restrictions or benefits, with humans being the only race with unlimited advancement (but unable to gain racial bonuses or multi-classing). Elves and Drow received +1 on their Dexterity score, but suffered -1 on their Constitution score, as well as near-immunity to sleep spells. Half-Elves received partial immunity to sleep spells, no special pluses or minuses to their ability scores, but the most possible class combinations. Dwarfs gained +1 on their Constitution score, some resistance to magic, and -1 to their Charisma score. Finally, halflings gain +1 to their Dexterity score, some resistance to magic, and -1 to their Strength score.
The player next chose which of the four character classes they wanted: Fighter, Priest, Mage, or Thief. Multi-class characters were possible for all races (except humans), but there were also some class limitations: Elves and Drow could choose Fighter/Mage, Fighter/Thief, Mage/Thief or any of the stand-alone classes; Dwarfs could choose Fighter/Priest or Fighter/Thief (or simply a Fighter, Thief, or Priest), but not a Mage; Halflings could be a Fighter, Priest, Thief or a Fighter/Thief (but not a Fighter/Priest); and Half-Elves could be any class, as well as the Fighter/Priest, Fighter/Mage, Fighter/Thief, and Mage/Thief combinations. Congratulations, you’ve got through the first two Character Generation screens!
After choosing the gender, race and class of their character, the player then worked up his or her ability scores (the standard Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma) on the third screen in the character generation process. The stats were randomly generated (you could discard them and refresh for a new set as many times as you wished), and each individual score could be swapped out with another. For instance, if you chose to play a Mage and your Wisdom score came up 18 and your Intelligence score came up a 10, you could switch them. In addition, each character was given an extra 5 ability points to distribute as desired. Once completed, the player moved on to the fourth and final character generation screen, where they were able to chose the Name, Portrait, and Alignment of their character.
Besides a rich character generation process, Descent to Undermountain also had a decent storyline and pacing. You began the game determining what in AO’s name are you supposed to be doing in Waterdeep. As the game map only showed Khelben’s Tower as a clickable item, it was off to visit the Blackstaff to see if he could enlighten you. It seemed that kobolds were bothering Waterdeep’s merchants, and had been spotted just outside the main entrance to Undermountain. (Bear in mind that this entrance was guarded by one of the most powerful Lords of Waterdeep, but, hey, it’s an AD&D RPG, so you should suspend all disbelief at the splash screen.) The Lord Mage of Waterdeep even passed you a quick couple of gold pieces to pay your way in and out of Undermountain, and sent you on your way to the Yawning Portal Inn. (Tip for anyone daring to play this game: it”s a good idea to stop at the marketplace just prior to entering the inn.)
Up to this point players were seeing some decent high-res screens, and some good voice acting. Khelben’s voice in particular, performed by either Jim Cummings (the voice of the Terror Mask in Splatterhouse, among many other things) or Frank Welker (the original voice of Megatron) – the credits are a bit unclear on who did the actual work – was very crisp. (Actually, Khelben sounds more like Jim Cummings.) And with all the prior work done on establishing your character, you’d expect playing the game would be worth the effort. Ha ha ha. No.
Sometimes it’s easier to show a few pictures rather than attempt to describe how bad something is with mere words. Yes, that’s a torch. It flickered, but the closer you got, the more pixelicious it became. And it got worse, much worse. Although the box stated Pentium 90 MHz with 32 MB RAM were the minimum system requirements to run Descent to Undermountain, I remember using my Pentium 200 MHz system (that handled some sweet-looking games with aplomb) yet this game ran like a Descent-engine slug. The problem was that Descent to Undermountain was a DOS game masquerading as a Windows game, with all the system resource management problems that entailed. Worse, the 3D objects were being software rendered, not taking advantage of the then-existing technology of 3D graphics cards. It seemed like an old game because it was: Windows 95 had already been on the market for years; the developers had no excuse for foisting a DOS game on their RPG audience.
Hidden within this morass of poor graphics was a fairly bland RPG. The story was very similar to a standard AD&D adventure module from the Gary Gygax days: go gather the parts to re-create the Flamesword – an ultimate Drow weapon – to prevent Lolth, the evil Drow Goddess from enacting her master plan to enslave the world of Faerun. Along the way, the player battled kobolds, skeletons, zombies, the Shadow Thieves, a mummy, orcs, ogres, a lich, drow fighters and priestesses, a beholder, and finally the avatar of Llolth herself. Unfortunately, a terrible AI made the creatures ignore you or move in a bizarre fashion until you disposed of them, and then, due to programming glitch, they sometimes floated nearby. As for the story, Descent to Undermountain used a fairly linear formula: Khelben assigned you your task, and you went down into Undermountain to complete it. Upon successful completion of said tasks, new parts of Undermountain would become accessible, although you could return to areas you already explored, too.
As you might infer from the overall tone of the previous paragraphs, critics crushed Descent to Undermountain like it was roadkill on the freeway. Computer Games Magazine gave the game a whopping 1 out of 5 in its March 1998 review, while Adrenaline Vault thought the game marginally better with a 2.5 out of 5 score in its December 1997 review. Gamespot gave the game a hardy 3.7 (out of 10), with an article subtitled, “How could the company that produced Fallout also be responsible for one of the lousiest games to come down the pike in quite a while?” And that seems to be a good place to end this look back at one of the many Retrogaming Ruins to have graced my gaming systems. Full disclosure: I finished the game twice, just to make certain I wasn’t being too unkind the first time I played it. The things we do to ourselves in the pursuit of retrogaming!