This week, Yahtzee reviews Unavowed.
I had very specific desires in mind this week, as I perused the new indie games like a Catholic priest moonlighting as a crosswalk attendant. I decided I was undergoing trial separation with anything that could remotely be described as "open world" or "procedural". It's not that open world games and I don't both love you anymore, viewers - they can still take you out in the weekend to hunt through the bins for crafting materials - but I have needs that I have to fulfill elsewhere.
I'm going to play a nice, linear, crafted story that makes me feel clever, not like an unusually well-scrubbed homeless person who can leak rubber cement from their armpits, or indeed, like someone strapped to a conveyor belt drawing inexorably into the world's most boring doomsday machine, so that's most walking simulators out. No, I'm going to play a 2D point-and-click adventure game. Take myself back to a simpler time when, if there was an object you need in a high place, you couldn't just exploit the physics engine; you'd have to combine a toasting fork with an extension cord and a Stickle Brick, and click on something two pixels wide because trying anything else will make the game obstinately fold its arms and call you a stupid prick.
Unavowed is an urban fantasy game that the Steam user tags seem to think is an RPG, possibly because someone was having a stroke; it's only an RPG in the sense that the game itself is playing the role of a 2D point-and-click adventure game. It was developed in something called "Adventure Game Studio"; there's a little giveaway for the sharp-eyed expert. You play an average dork, or dorkette; you choose your gender at the start, which just goes to show how far behind Assassin's Creed really is. What? Oh. Yes, I suppose getting to pick your gender is technically role-playing, but then again, avocado is technically a fruit, but you wouldn't put it in a fucking crumble.
Anyway, you are some flavor of bland pleb with one of three bland backstories who gets possessed by a demon and goes on the rampage before they get exorcised by the Unavowed, a secret society of paranormal detectives pledged to fight evil. Gotta say, guys, that sounds pretty fucking "avowed" to me; probably more avowed than most people. Also, it's rather a grand name for three dudes who share a flat, consisting of a genie, a half-genie lady with a big bum, and a bloke who does fire magic in a trench coat and a big hat and an enormous sandwich board with the phrase, "We've read a few Dresden Files books", daubed across it.
Anyway, now that the demon has put your bland pleb face atop the Most Wanted list, you have no choice but to join the Unavowed; you've got no supernatural abilities, or indeed, any perceivable qualifications besides a very bland face, but I guess the washing-up isn't going to do itself. It transpires that none of your new colleagues can so much as run a D&D campaign, so it falls to you to take the lead, recruit some new talent, and undo all the piss artistry your demonically-possessed self imposed upon the city of New York.
Now, if you have read a Dresden Files book, then you have my sympathies. Don't give up; there is always help out there. But if you have, then the world of Unavowed will seem very familiar. It's your fairly bog-standard "urban fantasy: magical races have lived in hiding among us for centuries and must be pretty fucking shit at it because literally every book shop in the world has an entire section devoted to stories about them" bollocks. So it's a modern-day city full of demons and wizards and fairies and clumsy analogies to contemporary race relations. And as such, Unavowed is a touch derivative, theme-wise, but I think that's forgivable as long as it's serving up an engaging enough little yarn.
Having said that, I'm not sure if that's "thanks to" or "in spite of" the usual adventure game trappings. Some of you may know that I have some history with the Adventure Game Studio community from way back; basically, I hung around until they stopped feeding me like a feral cat, but also because I felt adventure games were too limited, and so was Adventure Game Studio, more to the point. You can have the loveliest art in the world, and Unavowed does have some lovely backgrounds, but there's always something dodgy about how the animations integrate. It doesn't help that every character in Unavowed spends 90% of their time standing like they're waiting for a bus: waiting for a bus on the street, waiting for a bus in the ethereal realm, waiting for a bus in the back of a speeding boat during a tense pursuit with a sea monster. Every character also has one "action" pose that they occasionally slide in and out of as naturally as an articulated sex toy switching modes from "sensitive" to "violent buggery".
The broader problem with adventure games is that the challenge is having to navigate your way along one specific thread of logic. If it's too obscure, like you can only prod the angry octopus with the garden hoe and not the souvenir miniature of Nelson's Column, then it gets annoying. But if it's too obvious, like the only things you can interact with are a fat dog and a hole shaped like a fat dog, then it gets boring. You've got to walk a fine line between solutions making sense, but being obscure enough that you feel clever for figuring them out. Unavowed is more on the "fat dog" side of things; you only ever have access to small numbers of rooms, and half the time, you can progress just by exhausting dialogue with everyone. I did feel clever figuring some things out - there's a bit with a duel where you have to find the loophole in the rules that springs to mind - but for the most part, I rampaged through the chapters, barely slowing down.
Part of that might be because you can choose which two helpers to bring along each chapter, and so the puzzles have to be laid out in such a way that any combination of characters can solve them. Which reflects thoughtful design and is all very impressive, but it's impressive in the way that plate-spinning is impressive: yes, very skillful, but I'm going to want that plate back soon so I can finish eating my dinner off it. See, when you're asked to pick characters, you don't have any idea what the chapter's going to be about, or whose skills or experiences are most appropriate, so your choice is always going to be completely arbitrary. And unless you really do want to start a "boys only" treehouse club, I'm not convinced it's worth it.
But I'll get back to the story, because I do like the game, and I only want to piss on its shoes, not right down the back of its neck. It's about as deep a story as you'll get in an AGS game; despite the limited locations, it succeeds in creating a sense of a much bigger world, largely by letting our imagination fill in the blanks. Bear that in mind, We Happy Few; bear that in mind, Vampyr, and every other game that tries to fully create a big world and ends up being about as fun and involving as pulling your trousers around your ankles and filling them with half a ton of wet sand. And while the Dresden Files-style "wizards in New York" malarkey is basically the equivalent of Harlequin romance novels for lonely men in their twenties, I liked the characters; they all have rounded backstories, doled out both through implication and yes, admittedly, dialogue trees, but parceled effectively across multiple between-chapter downtime bits that don't vomit their GCSE results at you the first time you seem remotely interested.
And despite a few glaring holes, the plot had some interesting twists, and in the end, I was engaged, And that's all you can ask for, really. Well, it's not all; I could ask for a handjob, but I'm pretty sure you didn't bring the cream, or the Long John Silver costume.
- Unbowed and uncowed: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
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- I blame Maniac Mansion