Apprehend a psychotic scientist who’s turning men into monsters.
PC Release: September 17, 2014
By Ian Coppock
Sometimes video game developers don’t quite get it right the first time. Devs who put out a mediocre debut have a few options: they can either call it quits or try the same thing again. Alternatively, they can try a third, tougher option: making a meaningful improvements to what they pioneered. Argentinean developer Saibot didn’t hit all the right notes with Doorways: Prelude, but made a second attempt at visceral survival horror with Doorways: The Underworld. Whether that game is the same thing again or an improvement for the series is the question at the heart of tonight’s review.
Doorways: The Underworld is the second in a series of episodic survival horror games. Like its predecessor, Doorways: Prelude, Doorways: The Underworld emphasizes avoiding horrific monsters and solving puzzles. Players once again assume the role of Thomas Foster, a paranormal agent who went toe-to-toe with a sadistic history professor and an insane sculptor in Doorways: Prelude. This time, horror gaming’s grimmest detective is out to arrest a German scientist who spends her free time transforming innocent people into fleshy war machines. Fun fun.
Thomas is dispatched by the titular Doorways agency to The Underworld, a realm of rocky tunnels and sterile, uncaring laboratories. As in the first game, it’s up to players to avoid or overcome whatever obstacles the suspect throws at Thomas and place that criminal under arrest. All the while, players are challenged to solve puzzles, read up on the case, and most importantly… stay alive. With a name like The Underworld, players can bet that there’s some nasty stuff up this scientist’s sleeve.
Doorways: Prelude‘s most immediate problem was its poor system performance, but Doorways: The Underworld kicks that right in the teeth with silky smooth optimization. Whereas the first game struggled to hit 30 frames per second even with the film grain off, The Underworld can maintain a solid 60 fps. Props to Saibot for apparently sorting out Prelude‘s optimization issues, because they’re not to be found in The Underworld. The result is a game that runs almost completely free of bugs.
Players who do encounter a bug can probably sort it out in Doorways: The Underworld‘s options menu, which offers an admirable cadre of toggles for visuals and audio. The game shares its predecessor’s affinity for film grain, but this time the grain’s been applied with a much defter hand. That and other visual facets can be adjusted as needed in the options.
Doorways: The Underworld also looks much better than the previous title. Whereas Prelude suffered from blurry textures and environmental setups that were a tad too samey, The Underworld benefits from sharp textures and more interesting object detail. The game swaps out Prelude‘s threadbare environments for areas rife with details. Labs and tunnels in this game are chock full of items like discarded equipment, both to give the player more to look at and to give the environment a touch of immersion.
Before going any further, it’s also worth pointing out that The Underworld has an actual lighting setup. Prelude was too dark too often, giving players a limited field of vision and shrouding an otherwise intriguing world in darkness. The Underworld‘s environments are well-lit; not masterfully, but enough to let players actually see the world around them. The only areas that are too dark are the ones that are supposed to be dark, and Thomas has a headlight for those. His field of vision is also massively expanded.
The result of all of these visual improvements is more than just a sum of, well, visual improvements: it’s a game world that feels more sinister and more alive. Saibot’s closer attention to object placement, lighting, and textures makes The Underworld feel far deeper and far scarier than either of the environments in Prelude. It also lends the titular Underworld a sense of visual unity, like all of its parts were placed with careful consideration.
Players aren’t the only ones who are able to pay more attention to the environment. This time around, Thomas reacts realistically to phenomena around him. He gets startled when he lands in a pile of bones and lets out a muffled shout when a creature looms in the darkness ahead of him. Those reactions help give some breadth and depth to the character; they certainly do a good job of compounding the player’s own sense of fear when a giant sewer ogre comes lumbering toward them.
What’s that? A giant sewer ogre? Oh yes, that scientist isn’t just keeping her creations in test tubes; she’s let them loose in the facility to dissuade Thomas from trying to arrest her. Each of the creatures players encounter in the facility is unique and has its own strengths and weaknesses. Some monsters are nimble but frail, while others are slow but powerful. One creature encountered toward the very end can only be described as a hungry face lift gone terribly wrong. Saibot didn’t hold back on getting creative with its creature designs, and the monsters look (and sound) pretty frightening.
These monster encounters are also much more visceral than the ones in Prelude; monsters in that game usually only chased Thomas if he strayed too far from a linear path. This time, the inmates have free reign of the asylum, and will chase the player as much as they damn well please. Players who enjoy the hide-and-seek tension of titles like Outlast will find a similar experience in avoiding the good doctor’s “patients.”
Doorways: The Underworld‘s most sizable improvements over its predecessor are in its world design and system performance departments. The Underworld‘s narrative is also better than that of Prelude, albeit not by a whole lot. While Thomas does spend less time pontificating about the nature of existence, the writing still suffers from awkward phrasing and run-on sentences. It’s probably for the best that The Underworld focuses on the details of Thomas’s investigation, but it does so at the expense of providing little to no additional exposition on the Doorways universe.
Thomas also remains an enigma. Despite providing more details on his assignment as well as a masterful voice acting performance from Sam A. Mowry, The Underworld stays frustratingly mum on who this detective is. Where did he come from? Why does he pursue the wicked? Mowry’s voice acting is the only thing that keeps Thomas from being a vacuous shell for the player to occupy (though the aforementioned reactions to in-game events also add some humanity to the character).
The Underworld represents a rousing game design improvement for Saibot Studios in all ways but one: the puzzles. Doorways: The Underworld has a frustrating affection for logic-free puzzles, hiding tools inside of bodies and stamping door codes onto the corners of x-rays. These ridiculous riddles are when The Underworld is at its worst, and the solutions are so opaque that they nullify any shame in consulting a walkthrough.
The Underworld is also one of those games that’s made or broken by its last 10 minutes. Players have to spend the game’s final challenge memorizing and navigating a maze, and damn if it doesn’t get frustrating. What’s more, a monster that’s supposed to spawn behind the player occasionally spawns ahead of them, making advancement impossible and usually resulting in a bloody death for Thomas. It’s a creatively designed puzzle, but just because a puzzle is more sophisticated doesn’t mean it’s automatically better. There should be a name for that axiom… how about The Doorways Rule?
Horror fans will enjoy Doorways: The Underworld‘s terrifying monster encounters and unmistakably grim atmosphere, but not everyone will get the same kick out of its ludicrous puzzles or tedious final encounter. Even if those two factors mean that The Underworld isn’t every horror junkie’s cup of tea, the game still represents a tremendous improvement in Saibot Studios’ game design. Rare are the developers who make meaningful sequels; rarer still are the developers who pay this much attention to what they got wrong the first time.
You can buy Doorways: The Underworld here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.