Boasting economist lobstermen, gas mask aliens with 120 sexes, and the best space dogfights 2003 has to offer, Underspace is a sci-fi RPG well worth your time

Gasmask guy with tented fingers standing in front of space combat background
(Image credit: Pastaspace Interactive)

It takes a lot to get me immediately invested in a sci-fi universe’s backstory and lore, but Underspace got its hooks in the moment it recounted the story of The Speaker, a public orator of legend. When interdimensional conquerors threatened the galaxy, his unbroken 46-hour speech shamed the invaders so thoroughly that they turned around and went back home embarrassed. And that’s just the tip of an iceberg of weirdness.

Underspace’s universe is one where the closest species to ‘human’ (and the one your initial character belongs to) has 120 sexes, each only compatible with one other. A universe where alcoholic, angry floating crystals are probably going to be your best friends in a fight. Where giant lobsters run the galactic economy because they can tap into a species-wide psychic bulletin board to set trade prices before traders even know there’s a demand. It also looks and plays almost exactly like 2003 cult favorite Freelancer. So that’s a pretty big thing going for it, if an authentically old-school aesthetic isn’t a turn-off.

Pass the Hydrospanner

Freelancer nostalgia aside, it’s that compelling strangeness (reminiscent of Star Control, Farscape and even Lexx in places) that allowed me to endure Underspace’s many rough edges. Launched into early access just a few days ago, indie outfit Pastaspace Interactive (a small team including the guy who modded Thomas the Tank Engine into Skyrim) reckon that they’ve got at least another year of work until they’re happy calling this sandbox space shooter/RPG ‘finished’, and have been keen to manage expectations of what people are getting with this initial release version.

You’ve got a beat-up old spaceship, no reputation, and a handful of cash.

Right now, the core of Underspace is finished (the main story, many sidequests and a shocking number of boss fights), but almost everything else feels like a work-in-progress. Voice acting is either absent or synthesized placeholders (including an amusing Tiktok-adjacent robo-voice for the protagonist), bugs are frequent, gamepad controls aren’t fully dialed in and balance, performance and mechanics are a ways off from being finalized. If any of that sounds like a dealbreaker, feel free to drop this one on your wishlist and come back once it’s closer to being done.

That said, I’m probably going to be playing more Underspace once I’ve finished writing this, because I’ve a high tolerance for jank and there’s some very solid bones here. Plus, maybe I’m a bit more nostalgic for Freelancer than I’d like to admit to myself. While the excellent Everspace 2 is a good point of reference for a similar, recent game, this is more old-school. You’ve got a beat-up old spaceship, no reputation, and a handful of cash and are set loose on the universe to sink or swim through either trading, fighting, smuggling or (more intriguingly) monster-slaying.

Mo Space, Mo Problems

This is more Diablo In Space than Star Citizen.

Either by following the main story or going hunting for interdimensional storms (heralded by cosmic lightning illuminating impossibly vast tentacles in the distant space-fog), it’s not hard to find boss battles in Underspace. Giant space serpents, weird crystal constructs, massive robots with giant beam lasers and other Big Things will try to eat, blast or crush you as you dodge-barrel-roll around their attacks. They’re a fun change of pace from the basic dogfighting with smaller enemies, where you’ll spend most of your time trying to pin down highly evasive targets with your fully gimballed guns.

As with Freelancer (and Everspace), the default control method here is mouse and keyboard, with a gamepad setup currently only half baked and due to be finalized. This is more Diablo In Space than Star Citizen, with your guns firing towards your free-floating cursor and random elite enemies cropping with modifiers and better loot. You level up, assign stats and gear up your ships with an assortment of basic lasers or hotkeyed modules for orbital drones, mines, missiles and gadgets. No joystick, HOTAS or complex energy management here, just lasers, loot and a lot of traveling from point to point.

Them’s thinkin’ words

If you’re expecting immersion, you might want to wait for this one to sit in the oven a bit longer.

Another element separating this from Freelancer (and most of its other peers) is that once you land on a space station or planet, you’re able to walk around in first-person, chatting with NPCs and quest-givers in multi-choice dialogues. They’re a surprisingly well-written and chatty bunch, each species having their own quirks but individuals are treated as such rather than archetypes, even when they’re strange microscopic critters piloting floating robot tables. Despite some old-school chunky graphics (this is Indie with a capital I), it goes a long way to selling the fiction of this strange universe and its many oddball inhabitants.

Even the codex—source of most of the lore and explanations—is entertaining to read, being written in an informal ‘Okay, where’s what you need to know and what I personally think’ tone that reminded me of Brigador’s surprisingly compelling unlockable text. It’s just a pity that outside of the codex, very little of the writing is finalized, and most of the voice-acting at present is either amateur or synthesized placeholders. Again, if you’re expecting immersion, you might want to wait for this one to sit in the oven a bit longer.

One other notably Early Access-ish element of the game is the performance. Despite the game not looking much prettier than its 21-year-old inspiration, it made my laptop (an HP Omen with a 3070) creak a bit in places. Not a dealbreaker for me, but it’s one more rough edge to deal with. I’m only a handful of hours into what the developers estimate is a 16-hour main story (and dozens more exploring and sidequesting) and I’m excited to see more. A load screen just teased the existence of colossal monsters that wear entire space stations as camouflage, like a space-city-sized hermit crab. I wonder what kind of loot one of those will drop.

Dominic Tarason
Contributing Writer

The product of a wasted youth, wasted prime and getting into wasted middle age, Dominic Tarason is a freelance writer, occasional indie PR guy and professional techno-hermit seen in many strange corners of the internet and seldom in reality. Based deep in the Welsh hinterlands where no food delivery dares to go, videogames provide a gritty, realistic escape from the idyllic views and fresh country air. If you're looking for something new and potentially very weird to play, feel free to poke him on Twitter. He's almost sociable, most of the time.