The period of articles and think-pieces about how ‘the period of the point-n-click adventure game is on its last legs’ must surely be longer than the imperial period of the genre itself. High profile releases are little-to-sparse nowadays aside from the odd special edition of Lucas Arts adventure games like the Monkey Island series, or the recent Full Throttle remastered edition. Instead the genre has evolved to the episodic story-led puzzle games from Telltale Games; which gave us the Walking Dead games. It then leads us down the rabbit hole of Walking Simulators like Gone Home.
As the adventure genre is constantly evolving, there are still independent developers and publishers generating the old-style of adventure game. People make the argument of them cashing in on the nostalgia of the old style of game, which you could say about Thimbleweed Park; but it does a disservice to these modern games. Particularly in the sense of the games from New York-Based Wadjet Eye Games.
Founded in 2006 by Dave Gilbert, the company has now amassed a decent-sized catalogue of 2D point-n-click games that feel like the Lucas Arts games of old, but in fact were trying new things with the concept. Bringing in other developers on other games, the company has managed to create a brand identity so that you can tell you’re looking at a Wadjet Eye game. Introducing different game-play techniques involving notes and memories; the games are often combining these with strong characterisation and world-building.
There’s a good fan-following based on the Blackwell series that deserves to be placed alongside some of the classics of the genre. Even if you can see from the series how Gilbert has developed as a game developer, but they were satisfying games that stuck with you. With Unavowed, his first game in three years, Gilbert’s talents are showcased brilliantly and play on tropes and gameplay concepts of the point-n-click genre, whilst introducing elements from other genres.
Other reviews and interviews cite Bioware’s RPGs like Mass Effect as a strong influence on how the gameplay of Unavowed unfolds; and that’s true. Unavowed’s main selling point is that there’s a plot of replay value in it so you can see more of the universe, but approach the story of a different angle, meaning that things pay-off later on. The result is a satisfying experience that hooks you in.
In terms of story, you can choose to be either male or female, and have three different backstories (actor, cop or bartender). This gives you a unique playable intro that differs amongst the three jobs you can choose. It affects some of the interactions you have with characters later on too. But the thing in common is that at the end of the intro, your character becomes possessed and goes on a murderous rampage for a year. We rejoin the character as they get exorcised by Eli and Mandana of the Unavowed, a secret organisation dedicated to dealing with the supernatural elements leaking through “the void”.
Your character then teams up with the Unavowed, trying to figure out what the demon that possessed you wants. As you meet other characters, the team grows and thus you can mix and match your team so there’s three of you. From child-of-pirates-slash-genie Mandana and Fire Mage Eli, you’ll cross paths with disgraced Staten Island cop Vicki and Bestower Logan (who can talk to ghosts) and his spirit guide KayKay.
How you use these characters determines the solutions to puzzles you get. You’ll need to have at least Mandana and/or Eli with you but you’re limited to who you can take with you. There’s usually dead bodies involved so there’s ghosts, but if you don’t have Logan with you then you won’t be able to talk to them to learn more about them. Mandana and Vicki have swords and guns respectively, so you can use them to open doors with brute force: but without them you need more creative means. The interactions and character combinations lead you to moments where you’ll learn things that you may not have learnt on other playthroughs. The background conversations your companions have whilst walking around also are a highlight, as they reveal more things about the characters themselves.
But what of the gameplay itself? As with other Wadjet Eye games, there’s no sprawling epic multi-layered puzzles on the level of Monkey Island 2’s Four Map Piece goal, but you can tackle certain “episodes” of the story in different orders. A good chunk of the first part of the game is more dialogue-based puzzles and the odd small set-piece of moving from different screens to activate stuff. But as soon as the game opens up, the puzzles and the difficulty curve begin to increase. It never feels as if you’re completely stuck, but there’s enough challenge there. There’s a very satisfying and well planned puzzle involving a jailbreak that uses a nice gameplay spin that feels incredibly satisfying. On the flipside, some of the more paced sections do feel like extended dialogue puzzles that do keep things moving, they do feel as if the game is breezing through a good chunk of puzzle potential to sacrifice pace. Again, the story being told trumps over this, so it’s forgivable. You only notice this when you replay some of the earlier sections again anyway.
But as the moral choices come in, the decisions you make do have an impact later on in the game, and thus the ending. The characters do re-enforce your decisions at times, so you don’t feel like you’ve made the “wrong” decision; which is a testament to writing. It feels as if you’ve earned some of the payoffs later on.
Being at a higher resolution to older Wadjet Eye releases, the pixel art is stunning. Ben Chandler has overdone himself in this regard, with the different areas of New York looking distinct and detailed and given their own unique flair. The characters themselves feel detailed and look amazing, with some incredibly smooth animation. There’s also parts where camera movement plays a key role and again, it looks amazing. Some of the otherworldly creatures you’ll come across also look detailed and breath life into the void-world that threatens New York.
You know immediately that you’re playing a Wadjet Eye game. They’re lost in the sea of being seen as “retro games” when in fact they’re doing their very best in progressing the two-dimensional point-n-click genre. Unavowed is a magnificent achievement that just gets better the more you realise how small the development team actually was. The writing is amazing, the characters leap out of the screen and some of the set pieces in the game are incredibly well implemented.
It’s a game that deserves high praise.
Unavowed is out now on PC and Mac.