Review: Unsighted

29 Oct 2021
1

I’m going to die. I don’t care about that. I care about what it means.

It happens. I consider myself decent at video games, and I rarely get particularly angry with games. It’s part of my job. Sure, it might be a bit annoying to get stunlocked and killed, but there’s no reason to get mad about it. But this isn’t what’s happening. I can’t avoid the attacks. There are too many of them, I can’t parry everything. I’m going to die, and the clock is still running.

The clock is always running.

But maybe I should back up a little bit. Because you have to understand the trick Unsighted is pulling to really appreciate why a death had me cursing at my screen, gripping the controller more tightly, and resolving that I absolutely had to beat the boss on my next try, it wasn’t an option any more, because time was running out.

Unsighted is out now for PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. The PC version on Steam was played for this review.

Untoward

At the heart of itself, Unsighted is the story of Alma. But it’s also the story about what happens when you’re stuck in a world that doesn’t care about you or really see you beyond immediate utility, and about survivors banding together, and about feeling like an outcast and what you do with that feeling. Or maybe it’s about none of those things, but it definitely made me feel feelings along the way.

The game opens with Alma in a strange abandoned facility she doesn’t recognize with no memory of how she got there or what she was doing. She quickly escapes and heads out to the surface to find an overgrown and wasted landscape, barely even remembering her name at first before she encounters other survivors and starts to piece together who she is. She’s Alma, she’s an automaton, and she is dying… along with everyone else she knows.

See, she and all the other robots are running on something called Anima, which is produced by a meteor sitting at the center of this ruined cityscape. Unfortunately, this led to human forces attacking and sealing away the meteor, which in turn means that everyone is running on their existing stores of Anima rather than being able to replenish their supplies naturally. Once an automaton runs out, they become Unsighted, a berserk danger to everyone around them.

Everyone’s time is running out.

There’s a slim hope, however. As inaccessible as the meteor is while sealed under a tower, there are five shards of the meteor scattered around the city. If Alma can gather all of the shards, they can be forged into a weapon that will – hopefully – give Alma a shot at getting into the tower and freeing everyone. So hey, stakes established, danger clear, let’s get on with the business of killing things, right?

But of course, there’s more to it than that. There are more developments with characters, relationships, and their general needs, as well as Alma slowly remembering more about herself, her lost companion Raquel, and what led to her being lost in the first place. And there are the stories of the other automatons you meet, all sad, all striving desperately to exist in a world that gives them very little chance and pushes for their extinction just by virtue of their continued existence. It is an achingly sad story, told in bits and pieces, and always with the sense that Alma isn’t being told everything just like she doesn’t recall everything relevant.

And it helps that part of that story is linked directly to your actions. Because… well, that segues into gameplay.

Unbroken

Here’s the thing. That timer I just mentioned? That’s not an abstract story concept wherein someone will maintain life either just long enough for it to be plot-relevant or that everything will be fine if you do an obvious important sidequest. You and all the automatons around you are dying, and there’s a clock in the upper right-hand corner at all times that reminds you that time is ticking away. Your lifespan is measured in hours, and every in-game hour is another hour off everyone’s lifespan.

There is a way to ameliorate this, of course – you can collect Meteor Dust, which offers another 24 hours to any automaton who uses it. But Alma is also dying, remember. Do you hoard your dust for yourself in case you find yourself in dire straits? Do you give of it freely? Oh, no, this incredibly valuable item can only be bought with dust… is it worth it? Do you take greater durability in exchange for the possibility that you might have to let someone die because you just couldn’t extend their life?

Oh, and just to complicate things further, your game continually auto-saves and every death kicks you back to a specific point, meaning that you can’t just cheese it. It’s a remarkably solid case of integration between gameplay and story, but in an act of supreme confidence, the developers have also given you the option to turn off the timer if you’d prefer. This is the sort of design I live for. The developers clearly have confidence in providing you with a bespoke experience, but there’s enough good stuff in the game that you can turn this aspect off if you’d rather.

And all of this hasn’t yet touched on the actual gameplay from moment-to-moment. In broad strokes, Unsighted is kind of like a fusion between a metroidvania title and a Dark Souls-like venture, two genres that actually have more in common than you might think at first glance. You control Alma from a top-down perspective, slashing at monsters with a strictly limited health pool and a healing syringe that refills your health but is only refilled by smacking enemies. Alma can equip two weapons, ideally one ranged and one melee, as well as using a quick jump/evasive leap and a parry button. Parrying is very important, working even on bosses and letting you get in a nicely damaging critical hit along the way.

The game succeeds at the core goal of any Souls-esque title insofar as it always plays fair. Learning when to dodge and when to parry is important, but the question is never whether you can parry; that question is obvious and the answer is almost always “yes,” even if sometimes the timing is too difficult. Swapping between ranged and melee weapons is clean and intuitive. You have limited stamina to keep you on your toes, but it never feels so limited that you can’t do what you need to do; at the same time, it never feels so abundant that you can just mash the attack button without a care. And every single death – everything that casts you back to your last terminal with hours of precious time wasted – feels like it was your fault, not some arbitrary action of the game.

It is supremely fun to play. You feel like an absolute monster one moment as you carefully parry your way through an onslaught of attacks, slicing down enemies quickly, and then a second later you realize you screwed up just in time to watch half of your health vanish in a puff of overconfidence. Do you risk refilling now when you can take more damage or do you have faith you can recover without it? Is there one of the game’s big setpiece boss battles coming up? How are you going to handle this next scenario?

Unseen

You might assume from a glance that Unsighted has beautifully detailed pixel art but a corresponding limited amount of animation. You would be half right. Yes, the art in this game is beautiful, but there are truly an astonishing number of bespoke animations for every single character, from enemies to allies to even little touches as Alma runs and moves. Wreckage breaks and scatters beautifully, fluids accumulate on the ground as you break your enemies, the land becomes a battlefield and every single mark is left around you. No corners have been cut to make the game easier to animate, it seems.

The game also manages to throw out plenty of telegraphs, warnings of attacks, and clear signs about when to parry and how to prepare despite giving you only scant chances to react. Again, it’s a matter of fairness. Every hit you take is not the result of being hopelessly overwhelmed but not taking advantage of your weaponry and your situation well enough. There are always paths forward.

Sound effects are appropriately chunky and substantial, but the one weakness the game has – really, its only weakness – is that the music isn’t insanely catchy. It’s not bad, but most of it kind of just washed over me rather than sticking out in my memory.

Then again, I’d like to note that my strongest criticism of this game is that the music isn’t instantly iconic.

Unexpected

So here’s the slight surprise on this one: This game actually released in September, but it’s sadly gone largely under the radar. And it’s a game from an absolutely tiny team consisting of two people, and this is the game that they put out. It’s one of the most satisfying genre blends I’ve played in a long time, understanding intimately what makes both of its genres work and melding them together organically, has a great story, great art, great gameplay, great everything.

You probably didn’t know it existed before now.

But now you don’t have that excuse. Now you should be going to play it. Yes, I know, there are a lot of cool games coming out this year, but the big triple-A releases are still going to be there. This is about as indie as a game can be, and yet it never feels that way. It feels like a labor of absolute love, of pouring everything that this game could fit inside of it. This is a game that has that energy of a team that thought “we may never get to make another video game, so we are going to make one hell of a video game.”

In no uncertain terms? Unsighted is awesome. More people should know about it and play it, especially considering that the game goes out of its way to be accessible even to people who usually find Souls-like titles too hard, or people who dislike the timer mechanic but still want to experience the game, or even people looking for a harder ride. This is a good game and you should go play it. It’s not quite for everyone… but it’s as close as any title I’ve reviewed comes to being a must-play.


~ Final Score: 9/10 ~


Review copy provided by Studio Pixel Punk for PC. All screenshots provided courtesy of Studio Pixel Punk.