Unheard Review - Sound Design

Gaming article by Ron Welch on Thursday, April 11, 2019 - 12:00
Review
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Have you ever noticed that NPCs usually don’t interact with each other? You might spill someone’s deep dark secret, but no consequence ever comes of it. If it does, it usually happens off screen. Addressing that concept and making sure every character has a role to play in the story is a key pillar of Unheard, an audio-based detective game from NEXT Studios.

You play a detective in a police interrogation room. A mysterious woman introduces you to the Acoustic Detective System, which functions as a type of dystopian surveillance device. Your tools are the layout of a building, unmarked circles representing characters, an unorganized list of names, and questions about the scenario. As each scene plays out, characters move around the map. Because you can only hear characters you’re close to, you’ll have to use the playback function (essentially the scrub bar on a video player) to follow different characters around and uncover both their names and the truth. You can use speakers, but headphones come highly recommended.

unheard mystery woman
This room gives me some Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes flashbacks.

At its core, Unheard is an interactive audio drama where all the subplots are happening in real time. It’s a fun idea and the five stories are all intriguing, especially as you’re struggling to uncover character identities. The writers put a lot of effort into making scenes complex, but not complicated. The mysteries are tightly wound and the characters are deeply interconnected, creating plots within plots. Unheard unabashedly asks you put on your deerstalker cap and take notes.

Incidentally, if you don’t have a sheet of paper nearby, you can take notes in-game. You do this by going to a particular time stamp and writing a note. A tick appears on the scrub bar. When you revisit that scene your note glides across the screen like a cable news ticker. It’s a little awkward and doesn’t allow you to organize your ideas. You’re better off with pen and paper, it might even make you feel like a better detective.

unheard police station
Stories, a sub-plots, and red herrings. Oh my!

Unheard's crime-solving feels limited. The five scenarios run between 3-15 minutes each and you’ll have to follow different characters to get the full picture. No mystery has more than three multiple choice questions to answer and there’s no penalty for answering incorrectly.

You need to correctly identify everyone in the scene before completing a puzzle. You're told know how many names you have correct. Likewise, you’re told how many questions you have correct and may even get a hint if you answer incorrectly. If you’re really, truly stuck, you can just brute force your way to victory. Outcomes are the same every time, which feels like a missed opportunity to tell the same story with different outcomes.

Admittedly, I did appreciate the brute force option. One puzzle had me stumped because I had to figure out who was sending text messages. In all previous encounters, you can hear when someone is using their phone. In this scenario, the texting is completely silent. You must surmise the answer through tiny details, rather than any strong indication.

After solving a puzzle, you have to watch a stylized recap presenting the most important moments from the crime. On the one hand, that’s an interesting idea because it shows you any clues you might have missed. On the other hand, it almost feels insulting when you solve the crime on your own and Unheard holds your hand through the explanation. It might feel better if you could skip through the cutscenes and tutorial tips, but you have to listen to the unusual voice acting every time.

unheard recap
WHERE ARE THE OTHER DRUGS GOING?!

An audio-based game lives or dies by its production value. That said, I’m not sure what to make of Unheard. The voice acting feels purposely hammy. None of these characters have avatars and you could be juggling as many as 14 of them at a time. That means everyone needs to have a distinctive and immediately identifiable voice, tone, and speech pattern. For that reason, I found the range of overextended New Jersey, Brooklyn, and Mid-Atlantic accents to be enjoyable in this context. The delivery is occasionally awkward, but having distinct personalities was absolutely the right move for a game of this style.

The audio mixing itself, however, isn’t quite right. Audio engineers will probably cringe at the directional audio and use of stereo tracks. The sound output is relative to the direction of your detective token. So, if you’re standing to a character’s left, you’ll only hear them in your right ear because that side of your token is closer to them. This can make scenes distracting as you move around the room testing the audio while trying to find the spot with the best acoustics. Also, some of the sound effects have a noticeable hard cut, which is unpleasant if you have to listen to them over and over.

There are also hiccups with interconnecting scenes. For example, I had a scene where police were banging on a door. A man was yelling from the other side. So, I go to the other side of the door on a hunch that he might be whispering to himself. I then, shockingly, found out that you can’t hear the knocking on the door from inside the room. If I focused on the man and ignored the police, it would have seemed like he was yelling at nothing.

That said, there are a few audio decisions that work really well and encourage you to think like a detective. Whenever someone is on the phone, you can hear static representing the other person. You can also hear the buzz of a busy line or a ringing if someone doesn’t pick up. Additionally, all phone calls take place in the same building, so hearing someone on the phone tells you to find the other person on the phone at the same time to get the whole conversation. That’s a great idea and one that perfectly complements Unheard’s time manipulation tool.

I finished Unheard in just under three hours. Still, I felt immersed in every scene. Each scenario presents a cast of colorful characters and a question. Your only tools for finding the truth are your own reasoning and a sheet of paper. It’s perfectly hammy, but it’s not distracting in its silliness. Unheard is probably the closest thing we’ll ever have to a Murder Mystery Dinner video game.


TechRaptor reviewed Unheard on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the developer.

Review Summary

6.5

While Unheard stumbles through a few technical issues, it’s premise alone makes it thoroughly enjoyable. Though short, every minute of Unheard is packed with intrigue and there’s something immensely satisfying about having that ah-ha moment when all the pieces click together.

Pros

  • Unique Puzzle Game
  • Well-Written Scenarios
  • Complex, Interwoven Stories
  • Charming Voice Acting

Cons

  • Some Hand-Holding
  • Unskippable Cutscenes
  • Very Short
  • No Replay Value
  • Weak In-Game Note System
  • Wonky Directional Audio

About the Author

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Ron Welch

I love dissecting game design, seeing what works and what could be improved. While RPGs, shooters, and strategy games are my favorites, I'll tackle just about anything. I also do voice overs, make an award winning wing sauce, and (formerly) write about post-apocalyptic goodness.