Review: Doorways: The Underworld

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I always hate it when games only manage to get halfway to their potential. You see it a lot in indie horror, games that nail the look or the feel or the story but fall apart in the execution or details. Doorways: The Underworld nails a few particularly important aspects of horror, and then stumbles and face-plants on all the rest. It’s enough to give me hope that Saibot Studios will eventually produce a great horror game, but this one definitely isn’t it.

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Doorways: The Underworld is the middle chapter in the Doorways saga, preceded by Prelude and followed by the auspiciously-named Holy Mountains of Flesh. The plot in each follows a common thread: You are Thomas Foster, an investigator with the mysterious Doorways organization. Through means that are never explained (at least not in this installment) Thomas can remotely enter the minds of serial killers to track them down and apprehend them. That means each game is a sequence of dreamlike locales, symbolic of the demented psyches that produced them. I never played Prelude but it doesn’t seem necessary to follow the plot here, because Underworld is concerned only with capturing one particular villain.

Underworld is so named for the dim and claustrophobic depths you will plumb in your quest. Your target is a corrupt doctor who experimented on her patients in unspeakable ways (which will be spoken of in notes) and so her mind is laid out like a labyrinth of caves, sewers, prison cells, and laboratories. The symbolism isn’t as thick as you might expect here but the result is appropriately nightmarish and moody thanks to some expert lighting and audio design. The tight mine shafts and sodden sewers carry a palpable sense of dread, colored as they are in sickly greens and oppressive reds.

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That’s the atmosphere they nailed, and if that level of quality was kept throughout we’d have an indie horror gem here. But as effective as the feel is, the look doesn’t match. The level design here is noticably weak, with each area being a simple loop or winding path of mostly featureless hallways. Rooms off these paths contain little more than bare tables and generic crates, with few items or notes to find. Even the details like skeletons and corpses are unconvincing with their low-effort textures. Worst of all, the level design makes it obvious when you are and aren’t in danger once you realize you need places to hide from enemies. All those straight hallways are completely safe havens, and you only need watch out when conspicuous alcoves and pipes appear to cower in.

As for the enemies of Underworld… well, I’ll give them credit for scaring me in how they’re used. The most terrifying feeling in games for me is being chased, and that’s exactly how the monsters here threaten you. They’ll emerge from the cavernous gloom, seeking you out and driving you to hide or flee as fast as possible. It’s a thrilling sensation, but one that feels more like a theme park ride than an actual threat. Your foes are fairly goofy amalgamations of corpses and medical equipment, stomping after you on makeshift legs or wheeling about on support frames. Their movements are heavily scripted and they teleport around at times to be exactly where you don’t want them. And your hiding places are strangely immune to scrutiny, because even if they see you duck into them there’s nothing they can do but pace for a bit and then wander off.

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If you’ve played Outlast, this feels very much like the sewer chapter from that game, right down to the bloated, lumbering foes and hiding in small drainpipes. It’s not a good look for a game that came out a full year later, especially since it fails to meet the same level of terror or engagement using familiar means. The fear produced here is purely reflexive, because the monsters and environments are nowhere near as immersive as other horror titles manage to be. Beyond that there’s very little interaction or exploration to the game, with a handful of simple puzzles solved by collecting a few items (mostly valves) and putting them in the right places. Nothing here could be considered at all challenging aside from maybe learning the predictable patterns of some enemies.

I know Doorways: The Underworld is only about two hours long, but I didn’t even make it an hour before I lost all will to play it. I got through the mines, I got past the wheelie monster chase, I got through the first sewer where you collect valves, and reached the second sewer where you collect even more valves. The notion of doing the exact same thing on a larger scale held no value for me, especially when my reward would be more of the same wandering and occasional running. I never found any hook in the story, either, since the scattered notes just recount atrocities the woman you’re chasing committed. There’s no reason to feel invested in your character, not even for the awkwardly-worded monologues delivered with as much aplomb as the talented voice actor from Amnesia could muster. There’s nothing worth seeing here in the Underworld, just some cheap scares and decent atmosphere propping up empty halls and lacking gameplay.

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