Graphic adventures were my favorite games when the genre flourished in the first half of the 90’s. I won’t lament how they eventually faded into obscurity in favor of the action and flair that the 3D-accelerated PC hardware and super consoles brought along. Nowadays, graphic adventures pop up only once in a while to very specific audiences. I’m interested whenever a new game in the genre surfaces, but that doesn’t mean I’m content with every effort out there. On the contrary, the game has to be really good to satisfy my appetite. New York-based Wadjet Eye Games has carved a niche with its Blackwell series, spanning five adventures. After three years in production, they have come up with their biggest graphic adventure yet with the supernatural mystery Unavowed.
The game holds no punches as it sees your character killing two people in cold blood in its introductory flashback. A year later, paranormal detectives, known as Unavowed, have finally caught up with you, exorcising the demon that apparently had possessed you. The scene cleverly serves as a character creator with choice of gender, name and occupation (actor, bartender or police officer). This not only affects the start-up scene, but also dialogue choices during the course of adventure, which sees you joining Unavowed in their fight against supernatural forces, alarmingly on the rise as of late. It turns out that while you were being possessed, you’ve caused a lot of ruckus that needs to be sorted out. Of course, given the paranormal settings, not everything is what it first seems like.
Unavowed accepts the supernatural in the same vein as TV shows Buffy and Angel did. It’s all around us, not something to be pointed or gasped at in wonder. The game references many myths and legends with its own quirky take on them. The story is divided into chapters, with the metro line serving as a means of transportation between the main locations. Each setting consists of a few screens around New York, seeing you and Unavowed party members solving light puzzles and most importantly, talking the heart out with case-related people. Each chapter involves unrest caused by demons or other spirits, presenting moral choices along the way and escalating into dealing justice or showing compassion. Everywhere Unavowed go, there are your proverbial fingerprints all over the place. What was your demon’s ultimate goal?
On the outside, Unavowed may look like any retro-conscious graphic adventure with its moody pixel art presented in an old SVGA resolution, but there’s more to it. Oh yes, so much more to it. In addition to the crafty character creation, the game has a BioWare-style party system. There have been adventure games with multiple characters in the past, from the trendsetting Maniac Mansion to the hilarious Day of the Tentacle and to last year’s ingenuous Thimbleweed Park, but here Unavowed venture with you, with two party members present at all times. First, you have only Eli, once an accountant, now a fire mage a bit out of his time and centuries old Mandana, a half-Jinn and a half-human who can see through peoples’ lies. Later, you’ll be joined by Logan, a ghost whisperer with a phantom of a 10-year old girl as his spirit guide (everyone else sees KayKay as a hovering glowing sphere) and Vicky, a disgraced detective who can see past supernatural veils.
It always feels natural no matter which companions you pick up for the ride. Different party choices bring out new puzzle solutions and of course, lots of new dialogue. It’s as if you have always selected the perfect party for the job as there are no awkward moments or ham-fisted solutions. Characters also have casual banter between them, so it never gets dull to stroll around the rain-beaten vistas of Big Apple, basking in a menacing red-tinted sky with a dreamy jazz lingering in the background. On a couple of occasions, the game switches party members when the case needs a certain character, but it too feels completely natural, not something that’s forced upon you. The user interface is a super-simple one-button affair. Hovering the pointer over objects shows their descriptions, turning white when something is interactable and blue whenever there’s an exit to another screen.
Every important choice you have made plays a major part in overcoming trials in the final chapter. As often is the case, the path has been more interesting than the actual end (though there are multiple endings to see), but what a path it has been! An absolute joy to trod on, with a cleverly plotted and surprising drama from all walks of life, where tragedy is offset with warm humor, and the grim subject matter is balanced with the charming naiveté of the presentation. The writing is consistently sharp and each Unavowed stay true to their character. Together with expressive character portraits and devoted voice acting, they’re made into unique personas beyond archetypes they might first appear as. Rich characterization aside, the biggest strength of Unavowed is its understanding. The game doesn’t preach but wisely sees different aspects to even difficult subjects, such as recuperating from alcoholism or coming to terms with one’s troubled origins. Demons in the game’s world are often pawns in people’s selfishness and not just outright evil beings, and through dialogue choices, you can make your own stand in dealing with their plight.
On the downside, Unavowed is bit on an easy side. When you sit down to play the game purposefully, there’s little chance you won't complete it. Part of it are the flexible puzzle solutions depending on the party make-up (you just can’t hit impasse here) and the built-in hint system when you can ask Unavowed for their insight on your next move. I understand the developers didn’t want to alienate any players from enjoying the game’s mystery, but an adventure veteran like me enjoys nothing more than a good challenge, and it’s there where I was let down a bit.
For the purposes of this review, I completed the game several times (roughly a 10-hour affair at the first outing), trying out different party combinations and hunting for that perfect ending (that I know there has to be but that has eluded me so far). On each playthrough, though, I enjoyed the game as much as I did on my first go. It never gets old to see Eli’s weary wisdom, Mandana’s warm righteousness, Logan’s rugged intuition, KayKay’s mischievous behavior or Vicky’s no-nonsense street smarts. Rarely I see a game that endures such a ransacking through it. Like its subject matter, there must be something supernatural to Unavowed – or maybe I’m possessed by it!
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.