Unavowed is brilliant. It is entertaining, thrilling and awesome. It features a swordfight with a merman while balanced on a collapsed flagpole on the back of a boat. It features a ghost girl who sends messages by writing text speak on fogged up windows. It features a variety of urban fantasy delights that manage to continually surprise and entertain. It is by far the best adventure game I have played in years and a magnificent demonstration of how to improve a retro formula with the introduction of more modern elements.
Here’s the basic premise: You have just been rescued from a demonic possession which has had you running rampant through the city for the last year, spreading chaos and causing magical mayhem in order to increase your own power. Your rescuers are a group of supernatural warriors known as the Unavowed. This globe-spanning organisation once had a huge membership but with a recent decline in magical events, membership has fallen to a mere three people: an accountant turned fire mage, a djinn who serves as the de facto group leader and his half-djinn half-pirate queen daughter. Having been forced into hiding by the various evils you have committed while possessed, you become a member of the Unavowed yourself and try to retrace your steps, resolving the problems that your possessed self created.
This leads to a very episodic structure that makes the game fascinating to play as a chapter per night or as a binge session like it’s the new series of Stranger Things. But none of this touches on the most unique feature Unavowed brings to the table. Unavowed takes heavy influence from modern RPGs, but not in the traditional way. There are no stats, no combat, nothing like that. Instead, what Gilbert seems to have been fascinated by were those odd moments where characters’ backgrounds and abilities affect the narrative.
For example, say hypothetically you were attempting to open a locked door barred with a passcode. You could use the member of the cast with the ability to talk to ghosts in order to find it out, or you could use the fire mage with the ability to read written documents that have been burned. With each mission, you get to choose two party members to accompany you and have access to their abilities to solve your problems. This means that each puzzle will have a variety of solutions based on which characters come with you at which time.
Your characters also have that classic Bioware banter between NPCs as you wander around the areas, banter which is inherently affected by which pairing you happen to have brought. Some characters get along better than others, but all of them are fascinatingly entertaining to be around. Even your own character, who you may initially assume to be your classic Afghan Cap turns out to have quite a lot going on themselves. It lends everyone a distinct feeling of personality and makes your time with the Unavowed feel like actively becoming a member of an awesome team and turning this long-derelict order into a highly skilled monster-fighting force.
Dave Gilbert, the lead designer has clearly been waiting a while to put out Unavowed. He concluded his epic Blackwell series a full five years ago, after starting it 12 years ago. It’s difficult to guess how long these ideas have been floating around in his head, but it seems like he was using that time to figure out a fresh way to work. Now, I’d be happy to say I love all of the Blackwell games, but I don’t know if I’d recommend them. It can’t help but represent the legacy of adventure games it eagerly seeks to replicate. Puzzles are often solve-the-soup-cans odd, and the characters do not feel as well reasoned as they do in Unavowed. It seems, at least to me, that Unavowed is the result of a creator finally breaking new ground after thoroughly exploring his long dreamed of masterwork. Perhaps that’s more exciting?
Will we see more of Unavowed, I wonder? On the one hand, the format and episodic nature of the concept lends itself to an ongoing series quite deliciously. On the other, this initial installment tells a very succinct and distinctly finished-feeling tale. I would honestly be happy either way. I loved this world and the people within it. I’m happy to go back there again or to simply leave it with this singular perfect narrative.
There are moments in this game that are truly fantastic, including a late-game twist that seems incredibly obvious in hindsight, yet was utterly unexpected until it came in while employing the kind of subtle interface screw you’ll rarely, if ever, see coming. If you’re already a fan of the point-and-click adventure genre, I doubt you’ll encounter one this good in a while. If you’re not, the RPG mechanics and how they affect the story here might be just the hook you need to get into it. Either way, I would say that Unavowed is an absolute must play.