Unholy Is Promising but Rough Around the Edges

Games Features Unholy
Unholy Is Promising but Rough Around the Edges

The demo for Unholy, an upcoming survival horror game from Polish developer Duality Games, focuses on Dorothea, a mother whose son Gabriel recently passed away. The game isn’t clear about what exactly happened to him, but you get the clear sense of some sort of injustice, as Dorothea rages against faux-sympathetic obituaries and local moms gossip about her “sins.” Whatever the cause, there seems to be some connection to “The Spring,” a local cult.

We haven’t seen much of Unholy since its reveal at last year’s Tokyo Game Show, and while the demo, which will be released to the public soon, does have a few screens to provide context and info to prevent you from being completely lost, it seems fairly comfortable keeping its story cryptic as to what is actually going on. The demo is split into three chunks, three separate moments extracted from the early game with the plot threads connecting them left intentionally vague. Cutscenes and dialogue are sparse, leaving you to examine your environment to glean the majority of what information is available on the world around you.

This works fairly well at getting you interested in that world. Your first snippet of gameplay involves exploring your father’s apartment, which a mysterious old woman told you hides clues to what happened to Gabriel. The apartment, and the complex leading up to it, are loaded with small pieces of environmental storytelling—your dad’s neighbor’s door is surrounded by empty bottles, workers are removing graffiti promoting resistance against something or other, and the apartment itself is full of little oddities like a record collection and a brush made out of Gabriel’s hair. Admittedly, in a genre where this kind of storytelling is very common, the sheer amount of it and its execution during this early section do border a bit on ham-fistedness, but it still works for what it is.

One of the main things I noticed even in this fairly mundane section was the strikingly good sound direction. You get a real sense of the vibes of the area—machinery drones, the sounds of chores or arguments emanate from different doors, and the apartment soundscape perfectly captures that eerie almost-silence of an unoccupied domicile (until you turn on the record player, that is).

Exploring the apartment will be familiar to anyone who’s played point-and-click adventure games or other similar horror games like Silent Hill; you’re looking around, interacting with objects to flesh out the personality of the area, and trying to find clues and keys to progress to different parts. It’s very simple, but one would imagine the areas ramp up in complexity later down the line.

For the second snippet, you find yourself in a dark, mirror version of the apartment complex, in what the developers call “The In-between, a surreal passage between realities.” Here the actual gameplay is much more straightforward; you’re essentially following a linear path through the complex after what appears to be your son (though horror tropes might naturally lead you to question that), eventually running into the old woman again so she can give you some items you need to progress. While there isn’t a ton going on here gameplay-wise, and the visuals aren’t really much to write home about (we’ve definitely seen “creepy version of the building you were just in” before), this section is where the sound design really shines.

The game guides you through this section using sound in a way that feels very naturalistic. You hear something strange and naturally decide to go investigate, getting pulled down the critical path without need for intrusive objective markers or immersion-breaking environmental cues. It’s a small touch, but a nice one that suggests a careful approach to level design that reconciles gameplay clarity and visual consistency.

Once the old woman gives you a mask, you’re flashed to the third, final, and most substantial section of the demo. Here, we get to see a glimpse of some of the game’s most unique ideas—but also of some worrying shortcomings.

You start out in what appears to be an abandoned subway tunnel crawling with otherworldly goop and wriggling monsters. This is where the art direction really starts to pick up—mysterious, grotesque, and imposing, the tunnel is visually compelling and manages to keep you on edge even with no actual sources of danger. But unfortunately, this visual quality seems to have come at a price: the framerate in this section starts to chug hard. I played the PC version, and even turning the graphics settings way down, the demo still struggles to keep a consistent 60fps for pretty much the rest of its duration starting here. While this doesn’t initially pose a huge issue in this more exploration-focused section, it’s still distracting, and it starts to become a bigger problem once you step out of the tunnel and into one of the game’s stealth sections.

Said stealth section finds you in a destroyed and militarized town area where an apparent cult leader is ordering apparent heretics to be burned alive. This stealth is the most “gamey” gameplay we get in the demo, and it’s honestly a bit of a mixed bag. You’ll dodge moving spotlights and try to stay out of the armed guards’ line of sight, and with no viable close-combat options and only two hit points, getting spotted is probably a death sentence unless you have a clear path to sprint to your goal (though this is often easier than you might think—I fumbled myself out of some pretty bad-looking situations). It’s very basic as far as stealth gameplay goes, and while it certainly works, it’s not all too interesting on its own.

However, there is a bit more to it, as the game here introduces you to two of its main mechanics: masks and emotions. The developers tease that there will be a number of different customizable masks with such potentially interesting powers as unlocking new skills and allowing you to impersonate enemies. Unfortunately, we only get to wear one mask in the demo, and all it does is point out interactable objects in the environment. It would’ve been nice to get a better sense of what exactly equipping masks outside of this default one can really do for the gameplay, but still, I suppose it’s good to have confirmation that the mechanics are here.

The game does, however, actually show us the emotion mechanic in action. In Unholy’s alternate dimension, power comes from charges based on one of a few different emotions. When you collect those emotions, you can use them as ammo for a slingshot, with each one providing different effects. This is, from what I can tell, the game’s core mechanic, and it’s fairly cool. The demo lets you play around with two emotions: shock, which, fittingly, has an electric charge that can activate or overload machinery, and sadness, which creates an aura within which you become undetectable. 

These are both mechanics with a lot of potential, and while the demo doesn’t get too crazy with them, it’s easy to see how they could develop the stealth into an interesting and open-ended system. And we even get a cool glimpse of this: at one point, you have an area patrolled by spotlights, which you can either skilfully dodge or spend a shock ammo to deactivate. Extrapolating decision-making like this across a whole game could make for an interesting experience, giving you weighty problem-solving tied in to classic survival horror item management in a compelling way. One worry, though, is that material from developers seems to tease a small number of emotions. Depending on how versatile each one ends up being, that might not be a problem, but that possible lack of variety is mildly concerning.

Ultimately, that uncertainty is the feeling I have at the end of this demo. Unholy has the potential to be very cool and a real treat for horror fans, but at the moment, there are just enough question marks that I worry it may not be able to live up to that potential. I mean, promotional content from the developers mentions an “innovative combat system,” which the demo didn’t show at all (unless that’s just talking about the ability to stun guards for a second with shock, which seems like a stretch to call either combat or innovative). Regardless, the game is definitely one to keep an eye on, and could end up being a sleeper hit if it delivers on its compelling premise and mechanics when it releases later this year.

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