When does pixel art stop being “pixel art” and becomes simply art? How many bits or pixels does it take? How much nuance is possible? Wadjet Eye Games’ latest point-and-click adventure Unavowed is definitely invested in taking pixel art to the next level. The New York-based studio has been refining their shtick since 2006. After five games set in the Blackwell universe, Unavowed opens a new creative chapter.
The game is set in a Neil Gaiman-esque urban dark fantasy universe where a demon possesses the player character. You can play as either a man or a woman, and you can also choose a background as either a New York City cop, an actor or a bartender. Depending on your choices, the premise will have a different beginning with different characters and stories. Still, they all end with the exorcised protagonist joining the Unavowed, a secret order of supernatural beings committed to safeguarding the "mundane" world against otherworldly threats.
Accompanied by a saber-wielding jinn lady and an accountant-turned-fire-mage, you begin by investigating the havoc wrought by your demon self. There are some bright spots in the writing, and some not so bright. It's the kind of writing that doesn’t call attention to itself, and so it shines brighter when it’s focused on details unrelated to the main plot. I particularly like talking to the companions about their personal lives and observing their reactions to the surroundings. The plot itself isn't bad, succeeding in driving the story forward while feeling somewhat generic.
The environment art is outstanding in both interiors and street scenes. The levels look simple, though with a certain background effect that gives them a life of their own. Sometimes it doesn’t even look like pixel art, it looks like shades and painterly strokes. When it comes to character art, the gamut of expressions for the talking heads during dialogue could use a broader range.Some of the voice acting strikes me as amateurish. At one point I had to go into the New York sewers, where I found one of the characters I had been looking for. He’s agonizing down there in a supernatural state, and the voice actor is particularly atrocious. There's no reason why the character should be agonizing, his supernatural state should prevent his agony. It's basic overacting, with that pleading, high-pitched, melodramatic tone. The writing doesn’t help either, it sounds stilted. The voices for all the other characters so far are decent, but this particular character grates the ear.
Most of the puzzles so far are quite simplistic, only a matter of connecting A and B. This can be a plus in the sense that it keeps the game fluid and story-driven, rather than puzzle-driven. That can be positive to some, but negative to others. Speaking for myself, I enjoy complex and overwrought puzzles that offer that "ah-ha!" kind of pleasure when I solve them. I’m hoping the puzzles become more like that as the game progresses.
It’s not a real point-and-click adventure if there are no blind pixel hunts. Unavowed has quite a few interactables with their own descriptive vignettes, but most of them allow no actual interaction. The player character walks over to the object or spot and just stands there. No comment, no wisecrack, nothing. Sometimes you can inspect pictures and some other objects up close, but most of them are just there to add some distraction. The thing is, the player character shouldn’t even walk over to it if there’s nothing but the description. It’s disappointing, and it wastes time watching the character walk.
Some of the dialogue options allow the player to use their background for a dialogue check. For instance, for my main playthrough I chose to play as a cop, and later I was able to convince another cop to let me through a crime scene. There is also some reactivity to these choices, as one of the companions commented on my choice and how I could use my background as a skill for the Unavowed.
I hope that the background choice for the player character is as impactful as the Three Paths in LucasArts’ Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Player choice should result in a different playstyle, complete with different levels and different outcomes. It's a unique way to accommodate different kinds of players, adding a lot of replay value to the game as well. I'm not entirely sure that Unavowed will manage this, but the premise has a lot of potential.
Even with some flaws, Unavowed has gripped my interest and I’ll definitely sink more hours into it, exploring its levels, unraveling its mysteries, unpeeling its layers. There are satisfying moments in the dialogue, which can be quite witty with that Neil Gaiman-esque style. Dark urban fantasy is an underexplored genre in games, and the point-and-click adventure is a great training ground. There might be a future for it.
Our preview of Unavowed was conducted with a Steam code provided by the developer.