Unearthed: Trail of Ibn Battuta - Episode 1

Here is the short version of this review:

Unearthed: Trail of Ibn Battuta – Episode 1

is bad.  Really bad.  It sets its sights low and then fails completely on what little it tries to do.  It is bad in a way that I thought was no longer possible for a game made with modern 3D technology.  Avoid this game, and if you should somehow find yourself exposed to it, cover your mouth and run for the bathroom.

At least Unearthed isn’t shy about telling you what games have inspired it – Tomb Raider and Uncharted are mentioned in the same sentence in the first chapter.  As you progress through the game, however, you will find that Uncharted forms the majority of that inspiration.  The protagonist, Faris Jawad, is a dashing young adventurer who sounds a lot like Nolan North.  He visits tombs in search of treasure and knowledge while his female sidekick gives him guidance and support.  He engages in some simple platforming and puzzle solving in between cover-based shooting engagements.  Whenever he navigates past an obstacle or picks up a gun, he lets out a little quip like “oh, this will come in handy”.  The game also begins with a wounded protagonist in the prologue and then tells its story via flashback, just like Uncharted 2.  Everything, even the context sensitive prompts at the bottom of the screen, looks like it was lifted directly from the Uncharted series.

Mind you, Unearthed is perfectly honest about what it is, and isn’t the only offender nowadays when it comes to borrowing elements from popular games.  This approach to development isn’t necessarily bad.  It is possible to make a unique experience out of other games’ elements, provided you do some mixing and matching and then deliver them with a high enough level of polish.  Unearthed fails catastrophically at the latter, which means that it doesn’t even reach the level of “boring and by the numbers”.

The one unique feature of Unearthed: Trail of Ibn Battuta is its Islamic theme.  Ibn Battuta, the legendary traveller of the 14th Century Muslim world, is this game’s version of Sir Francis Drake.  It feels as if the purpose of the game is to pay homage to Ibn Battuta and educate Western audiences, who normally would have no exposure to this part of history.  I can appreciate this motive, but the game is so incompetently made that it doesn’t matter.

For starters, the game is really ugly.  It is the ugliest looking game that I have played in perhaps a decade.  Everything about it looks bad.  Probably the worst offender is the lighting.  Almost everything in the game is super bright or too dark.  There are a few areas that are supposed to be dark, but even some puzzle solving chambers and shooting arenas are too dark and will have you squinting at your screen.  Enemies in black suits blend into the background so well that you can barely see them from more than about 20 feet away.  Important puzzle objects like magic medallions or ancient daggers are tiny, barely visible blobs.  Other sections are so bright and bloom-y that you will need a bottle of SPF 50 to play them.

Judging from a screenshot, you might get the impression that Unearthed is a late Playstation 2-era game.  As bad as it looks in a still frame though, it looks even worse in motion.  The best thing that you can say about the horrible animations in this game is that they provide lots of unintentional comedy.  The platforming animations are poor, especially the ones for shimmying along the wall.  The game’s kick animation looks like Faris lifts up his foot about two feet to stomp on a bug but then changes his mind and puts it back down again.  As you can imagine, fistfights in this game are a pretty good source of laughs, as Faris squares off with bad guys and they exchange harmless looking “punches” and “kicks”.

Speaking of the fighting system, it is one area where the game attempts to iterate on the Uncharted series.  Occasionally, Faris will get into a close encounter with a tough guy that doesn’t involve guns, and a couple of health bars will appear on the screen while the camera pans to the side.  You can punch, block, and kick.  As far as I can tell, kicks are unblockable and they don’t go off slower than punches, which means that you get through these fights by just spamming kicks over and over again.  A couple of times each fight, your “power” meter on the right fills up.  At that time the game prompts you to press square to perform a crudely animated move that does extra damage.  This appears to be the spot where the developers were going to put quick time events into the game, but changed their mind at the last minute and said “Fuggit.  We’re done.”

Now that cover-based shooters have been part of mainstream game design for six years, it is pretty hard to get it wrong.  Unearthed comes about as close as you can get though.  You have a primary weapon, usually something like an assault rifle, and your backup sidearm.  There is a cover system, but aiming frequently bumps you out of cover, which kind of defeats the purpose of cover in the first place.  Bad guys will bark out a few generic phrases like “I need backup” while they just stand there shooting at you or occasionally ducking in and out of cover.  The stiff animations, mediocre AI, and half-broken cover system all combine to give combat a clunky, amateurish feel.

Platforming is equally as bad, if not worse.  The controls are too sluggish and unresponsive to convey the sense that Faris is a daredevil like the Uncharted protagonist who inspired him.  The level design is boring and there is no interesting scenery to traverse.  Thanks in large part to the poor graphics, it can sometimes be hard to find where you need to go next, because what you can grab and jump on isn’t obvious.  The puzzle solving is primitive, with doors or gates being unlocked by collecting between two and four items and sticking them into the correct slots.  The puzzles are so devoid of charm or imagination that it is puzzling how somebody could have expected them to be interesting.

Unearthed also features a quick driving sequence towards the end.  Would it come as a shock to you that it is also really bad?  No, it probably wouldn’t.  The sequence merely consists of you staying away from the cops long enough to trigger a cut scene.  You drive through the two city blocks that have been copy and pasted ad infinitum.  Your brake lights don’t light up, there is no damage modeling, the physics are poor, and the cop cars occasionally disappear right in front of your face.

Rather than the travels of the mythical Ibn Battuta, the biggest mystery with Unearthed: Episode 1 is why it was made in the first place.  It combines unoriginality and low quality in a way that is almost mind boggling.  Was this supposed to be a serious attempt at an Islamic-themed adventure game?  A cheap cash-in on the popularity of the Uncharted series?  Whatever its reason for existing, if the purpose of Unearthed: Trail of Ibn Battuta - Episode 1 was to do anything besides provide a terrible game, it missed the mark completely.