Some may assume that fantasy has no rules, that anything goes. Like all fiction, it must stick to possibilities, even when they're unrealistic. Great fantasy operates through a very rigid internal logic, and any deviation from it kills the illusion. That goes doubly for urban fantasy, a fairly new subgenre that simulates both fantastical plausibility and mundane realism. When you add player interaction to the mix, it gets even more complicated. Unavowed attempts to balance the urban and the fantastic with the shifting scales of interaction and internal logic in a compelling point-and-click adventure.
New York City is your prowling ground. You can be a cop, an actor, or a bartender of either gender. Whatever your choices, you'll be possessed and exorcised in the prelude, then persuaded to join the thin ranks of the Unavowed. They are a secret society of supernatural beings dedicated to fighting evil, or at least lesser evils. It's a familiar trope: occult detectives and monster hunters. When you put it this way, the premise sounds rather hackneyed. However, once you get to know the jinn Mandana and the fire mage Eli, you'll be charmed by their personalities. They act and talk like ordinary people more often than not.
On my first playthrough, I played as a male cop and followed my instincts, which led to an underwhelming ending. The second playthrough as a female bartender led to other decisions in the hopes of seeing the endings I missed. While I did skip a good portion of the dialogue in the second playthrough, I enjoyed it more. Not only because I tried other decisions, but also because I realized there were other solutions to puzzles. It felt rewarding, especially toward the end.
I’d hoped that the background choice would influence the gameplay and the story in ways that echoed the classic Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. It did not, at least not in the way I expected. The background choice enables a few dialogue checks, but nothing changes in terms of consequences. For example, you can ask a cop to see a crime scene both as a cop and a bartender. The lines change, but both will get to see the crime scene, so there’s virtually no difference. What's different is how the puzzles change depending on the companions you choose to bring along.
Along the way you'll recruit two other companions: the hothead Staten Island cop Vicki Santina and the recovering alcoholic medium Logan. As you go on with your missions you can mix and match with Mandana and Eli. They all have their own distinct abilities that you can use to solve puzzles. Mandana is strong, agile, and her saber is very handy, not just in fights. Eli can burn, boil and melt anything with his fire mage powers, as well as touch hot objects. Vicki Santina has her police savvy and a gun, and Logan can talk to ghosts. It doesn’t matter who you bring along, they can all help you get ahead.
Obviously, this adds a lot of replayability, even though the outcomes are identical. In that sense, Unavowed is not about the destination. It’s about the journey and the companions who travel with you. The possibilities of combinations make for a great variety of banter between the companions as you explore the city boroughs. There is a lot of local flavor and wit in these little tidbits and exchanges that make it worthwhile to listen. The same goes for the dialogue with a variety of NPCs of many backgrounds and personalities.
The writing is at its best when it deals with the personal life of your companions and the NPCs you meet along the way. While the plot itself has some interesting moments, the motivation of a particular central character didn't feel very developed. There’s an element of surprise that works fairly well, but the exposition at that point wasn't very convincing. It’s not that the writing is bad; it’s that it lacks subtlety, especially when it comes to moral dilemmas. Gray morality feels more like a gimmick than a proper reflection of reality.
Each mission takes place in a different borough of New York City. Even though I’m not American and have never been there, I got the impression that some of the character choices were a bit stereotyped. You have African-Americans in the Bronx, Italian-Americans in Staten Island, Chinese-Americans in Chinatown, Jewish people in Brooklyn, and so on. No doubt that it’s statistically very possible, but there was a missed opportunity to subvert some of these stereotypes. It would certainly enrich the setting if the characters weren’t exactly what you’d expect from a particular neighborhood.
Most of the puzzles are simple and completely forgettable, but there are a few that stand out in the final chapters. My favorite one was figuring out a keypad code to a terrace door based on five loose words that seem completely unrelated. There is also a prison bust segment with clever level design and elaborate puzzles. It didn’t feel contrived at all, it blent very well with the setting. Sometimes you have to bounce back and forth between NPCs to solve some puzzles, which can be kind of annoying after a while.
The game has some of the most beautiful and remarkable pixel art I’ve ever seen. Some of it doesn’t even look like pixel art in the traditional sense, as I noted in my preview. It’s full of lush and bright backgrounds, with a gorgeous dusk palette. The soundtrack matches the art direction in many ways, though it’s nothing special on its own. While I had some issues with the voice acting at first, most of it is excellent, especially when it comes to personal stories. The antagonist exaggerates the evil-sounding voice sometimes, but it’s tolerable.
The point-and-click adventure was never a particularly mature genre. Although it’s come a long way since the wacky comedies of Sierra and LucasArts, maturity doesn’t come easy. While Unavowed is definitely a big step in the right direction, there is also something juvenile about it. It’s not just dark urban fantasy, it’s a kind of “grimdark” indulgence in violent imagery and gray moral dilemmas that can be a bit much. When it manages to tone it down and focus on the human drama of its characters, that’s when it stands out.
Unavowed is a smooth and seamless adventure as a whole. It takes fantasy very seriously, abiding by its own rules in a way that makes the world it paints seem credible and engaging. At its worst, it may seem a bit too eager to shock, but when players have the chance to interact with the characters at a human level, it truly shines. It will offer adventure gamers a solid and delightful experience, packed with replay value and branching interactions.
Our review of Unavowed was conducted on Steam with a code provided by the developer. It's also available on GOG.
Unavowed succeeds as a mature point-and-click adventure set in an urban fantasy world, though it falters in some of the fine print.(Review Policy)
- Amazing Pixel Art
- Coherent Fantasy Worldbuilding
- Relatable Human Drama
- Great Replay Value
- Unchallenging Puzzles
- Gray Morality As Gimmick
- Grimdark Shock Value