moonlightmoth's Unavowed (PC) review

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Demon of the Fall

If there is one genre that refuses to die it is the point and click adventure. The tools available and the simplicity of its essential design make it very appealing for storytellers without means. Whilst not always in vogue the genre has nevertheless always been productive and there is no shortage of interesting, well-written adventures to be had for those willing to see past the standard pixel art that has become the de-facto aesthetic.

That’s not to say they aren’t pretty; one does not have to look very far to see how easily artistic talent can supersede technological might, but when one is on a tight budget it is the writing that tends to come first, with the visuals and gameplay left to fight it out for extra attention. How else does one explain having a higher resolution as a ‘feature’ for a new point and click adventure in 2018, by one of the genre’s most well-known creators?

The reality is that most are made with very limited resources and by writers rather than game designers. This may explain to some extent why adventure game puzzles tend to be so convoluted and obscure; puzzle design is a skill like any other and your average writer is unlikely to possess the ability to construct something that isn’t either insultingly easy or sadistically hard/ridiculous.

Pretty sure there's a Monkey Dust sketch in here somewhere.
Pretty sure there's a Monkey Dust sketch in here somewhere.

One suspects that Unavowed’s creator Dave Gilbert understands this and has for the most part erred on the side of caution with his approach. Unavowed’s tale of urban fantasy very much leans towards being too easy rather than too hard, but whilst this may seem something of a cop-out it ultimately helps the pacing of the story. I’ve seen too many friends lost to the ‘impossible’ puzzle to care about the need for the player to feel smart, just make the story move. Thankfully Unavowed’s gallops along at a speed that helps keep matters engaging, minimising the risk of that most common of playthrough terminations: death by shit puzzle.

Set in modern day New York the story opens with something quite unusual; you get to create your own character. Sure, demon exorcisms aren’t usual either but Unavowed has you choose gender and an, albeit rather brief, origin story that you get to play out recounting just how you got taken over in the first place. It’s a small thing, but it kicks off the game’s desire to give you agency, and to decide not only your fate, but of those around you.

Despite having no special powers beyond being a portable flashback machine for the demon that possessed you, you are roped into becoming a member of the Unavowed, a special team of individuals whose job it is to ensure the mundane world is protected from the mystical and magical threats that lurk close by. The primary threat turns out however to be the very demon that possessed you and so begins a tour of the big apple to track down the creature and discover its plan.

Despite not being overt in telling you, Unavowed has a mission based structure where each sojourn into the city is bookmarked by time spent at your base, providing an opportunity to learn more about your colleagues in the Mass Effect mould. And it is well worth doing as the characters in Unavowed are well written and have a depth of personality that undermines the kinds of presumptions one might have of them on cursory examination. This is helped by there being only a handful of potential party members, allowing more time to be spent on developing them as people along with the wider group dynamic rather than having brute quantity and a pile of underutilised potential.

There’s no romance alas, but there is good humour and dialogue between everyone, even if one character’s Long Island drawl is a bit much for these RP English ears. There are clichés, but the writing pretty much always manages to go beyond them and subvert expectations in a pleasing way. There are also some great twists, especially concerning your own situation, and thematically it covers a number of issues with elegance. Each mission has its own mini narrative and despite the relatively brevity of each somehow manages to feel significant. Nothing in the narrative comes across as throwaway and there seems to always be an emotional core to each story, anchoring your investment in the outcome.

When Arsenal play? ...pretty much.
When Arsenal play? ...pretty much.

Choices in Unavowed tend to only colour the details of the story rather than shift the landscape in any meaningful way. You have a number of endings to potentially choose from but one suspects that the point of having choices in the game is to allow for the player to think about why they made that choice, to examine the ethics in each case in their own mind and get something from that introspection, rather than simply observe the consequences.

Admittedly these are not particularly novel ideas within the context of games in general, however their implementation here is smart. There exists an understanding within Unavowed that too much choice can cripple a game’s story and leave it in a miasma of blandness as the writer struggles to incorporate every possible permutation, but also realises that choices can introduce a degree of tension and give players pause for thought, often on quite sensitive subjects and themes. It limits choice in such a way so as to preserve the pacing and content of the narrative, but has enough to give the experience that extra immersive quality that choice can bring.

Ultimately Unavowed succeeds where all other great adventure games succeed, in the writing. But what distinguishes itself is its nod towards choose your own adventure books and the push towards making narratives more interactive beyond simply clicking to continue. Whilst it is not quite a masterpiece it is nevertheless an excellent addition to a genre already overflowing with quality titles. Whether embraced or ignored, the point and click adventure was never dead, nor was it revived, it was, still is, and hopefully, always shall be.

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