7.0

Unholy Serves Up Short, Sweet, and Simple Stealth, but not Much More

Games Reviews Unholy
Unholy Serves Up Short, Sweet, and Simple Stealth, but not Much More

Unholy, the latest release from Warsaw-based developer Duality Games, has been marketed primarily as a “psychological horror game,” but having played it, I have to respectfully disagree with that assessment. Sure, it shares many of the trappings of horror—creepy settings, monster chases, a general sense of feeling underpowered—but the horror elements aren’t really the main draw of the experience, in my opinion. Which, to be clear, is a good thing, not just because it isn’t very scary (only a small handful of times did I find myself spooked, and even then some of those were cheap jump scares), but because it allows the true strengths of the game to shine for all they’re worth.

So allow me to introduce it with those strengths in mind: Unholy is a stealth-adventure game where you use the powers of different emotions to creep your way through various creative scenarios. It’s not the flashiest, most complex, or most innovative game in the world, but it implements its mechanics well and doesn’t overstay its welcome, leading to an experience that, while simple, keeps itself fresh and satisfying for most of its runtime.

The majority of the game is split between two worlds: the In-Between, a supernatural, twisted version of a Soviet bloc apartment building, where the focus is mostly on exploration and puzzle-solving, and the Eternal City, a plague-ridden alternate dimension ruled over by a cult called the Eternal Spring, which is more stealth-based. The Eternal City sections take up the bulk of the runtime and contain the most engaging action, so I’d call stealth the headlining experience.

Unholy’s stealth mainly centers around your slingshot, which can be loaded with charges containing the power of one of four emotions, each of which can be used to different effect. Shock can power or destroy electrical machines and circuits, sadness creates a bubble which temporarily hides you from enemies while you’re inside it, anger can trigger landmines or destroy environmental objects, and desire creates a decoy that temporarily distracts any enemies in range. In my preview of Unholy based on last month’s demo build, I said that the emotion mechanic had a lot of promise but that I was worried that the small number of them could lead to a lack of variety. Thankfully, I’m happy to put that worry to rest—the developers used each emotion very smartly in order to keep them consistently fresh. While the emotion powers are very simple, and they don’t seem very versatile on the surface, the strength of the system becomes clear once you start using them in conjunction with each other in order to concoct plans to deal with enemies. Do you want to attract a guard near a faulty circuit breaker with desire before setting it off with shock? Or maybe use sadness to hide yourself loading a landmine close to a monster’s path to blow them away while they’re none the wiser? These four powers lend themselves to a surprising amount of freedom and creativity in how to tackle any given scenario, which, in combination with some light resource management due to limited ammo capacity (though this will eventually be somewhat undermined), leads to a lot of very satisfying problem-solving that feels all the sweeter because you figured it out on your own terms.

A lot of the credit for the problem-solving working as well as it does goes to the level design. Levels are varied and almost always allow for numerous different approaches. Here’s an example of how this design approach is executed: At one point, you find yourself speaking with a mechanic who warns you that the street near his house is flooded with plague-infected toxic gas. He tells you how to deal with it: find two machine parts in the environment, pull a lever outside his house, and then take the machine parts to a control room in order to activate a ventilation system. But, unbeknownst to both of you, one of the machine parts is guarded by a monster, and the most obvious entrance into the room where it’s held requires you to release the monster into the rest of the area, making your job much more difficult. So you’re faced with a number of compelling choices: route around the area to hit the monster’s room last and then make a run for it, let it out and just sneak around it, search the area for possible alternate entrances (if you’ve got enough charges to access them), and so on. All of these approaches are valid, and the game very rarely telegraphs any specific solution, allowing you to figure things out on your own terms.

That freedom and lack of hand-holding never come at the cost of visual clarity. It’s always very clear where you’re supposed to be going and what you’re supposed to be doing, but never in a way that feels like you’re being cheaply railroaded down the critical path. Maintaining this balance may not seem like a big deal, but having seen many, many developers err on either side, it’s a testament to Unholy’s art directors and level designers that they maintain it so consistently. One small aspect of the design that I really want to draw attention to is its answer to waypoints. Instead of big, showy objective markers, holding down the scroll wheel button will reveal a soft pathway of light showing you the critical path through the world. However, it’s not just a “follow this to win” deal like similar mechanics in games like Bioshock Infinite—the path is imperfect. I’m not sure if they ever explicitly confirm this, but I’m pretty sure the path is supposed to mirror the route taken by a mysterious old woman who you’re on the tail of for most of the story, and this introduces some complications: sometimes the door she took is locked now, sometimes you stray off of her beaten path, sometimes you get interrupted by a sudden enemy intrusion. The path is always a rough, general guideline to push you in the right direction and keep you from getting lost, but it doesn’t just hand you the solution to any problems, and even then, you never have to look at it if you don’t want to. This is a genuinely innovative response to the tired old waypoints saturating the AAA space and I absolutely have to commend it.

Unholy

Another thing I have to commend is the presentation. The developers clearly put a lot of stock in the visual design of the worlds, with art director Tomasz Strzałkowski being the one member of the team getting the most credit in the marketing, and I can certainly see why—the two worlds are both visually stunning in very different ways, with the dark, unnatural, and deeply disorienting (in a good way) hallways of the In-Between and the grotesque cityscapes of the Eternal City both coming to life excellently. And, thankfully, the performance issues in the demo version have been largely cleaned up—the framerate still dips here and there, but it never really becomes an issue until the final chapter, where we’re introduced to some graphical effects that the engine clearly was not properly prepared to deal with. I’d be hard-pressed to call this a horror game, but the horror-esque theming definitely does wonders for its aesthetic. As great as the art direction is, I’d like to draw special attention to another side of the presentation: the sound direction. I frankly can’t praise the sound design enough: the sound mixing is finely-tuned and nuanced, so much so that you can glean accurate info on enemy locations and behavior without even looking at them (an obvious boon for stealth gameplay), and the implementation of a seamless dynamic soundtrack keeps your sneaking tense and exciting in every moment.

Unfortunately this tension and excitement is dampened as you progress. The deeper I got and the better I learned the mechanics, the more those mechanics started to crack a bit as I got this unshakeable feeling that the developers were pulling their punches. The enemy AI definitely exemplifies this—there are only about three or four different kinds of enemies, and they are frankly dumb as rocks. It’s deceptively easy to get them off your tail once spotted, most of them seem to not understand how stairs work, and they have hilariously poor peripheral vision—none of which is helped by a glitch I encountered a couple times where aggroed enemies seemingly just forget how to do anything and just stand and stare at you menacingly. None of this is a huge issue in the early game, as you’re also very underpowered, but once you’ve learned your way around the emotion system and filled out a bunch of the skill tree, some encounters can become trivial in a way that kind of tramples the tense experience the game is going for. Not all of them, mind you—there are still sequences even in the late game that strike a great difficulty balance and get your gears turning figuring out how to deal with them (one of my favorites being a prison area that incorporates some puzzle elements)—but in general, the tension dissipates noticeably with time. In particular, the upgrade to the duration of desire’s distraction effect is way too overpowered, making it easy to cheese some later encounters if you come into them with enough desire loaded up.

And chances are you will have a good amount of desire at any given time, because the developers seem to be pulling their punches as well in resource scarcity, or lack thereof. A lot of the problem-solving and decision-making is at its best when you have a limited amount of emotion charges with which to tackle any given scenario and thus have to use what you have wisely. But the developers seem almost scared to put you in a tight spot, leaving a great abundance of ammo all over the world to the point that moments of genuine scarcity are unfortunately few and far between. On the occasions that the developers do pull the reins in and force you to think critically about your management, it’s great—I just wish they had let it happen more. The skill tree shoots the rest of the design in the foot here too—one of the cheaper upgrades doubles your inventory space for ammo to six shots per emotion, enough to soften resource management to the point where it’s barely even a concern most of the time.

Between these issues, somewhat predictable attempts at scares, and “puzzles” which I haven’t even mentioned yet by virtue of the fact that they’re usually so easy they’re basically a non-factor, the game’s systems are never quite able to reach their full potential, consistently robbing themselves of the stakes they’re trying to build. This never ruins the experience entirely—it’s still plenty fun and satisfying—but its attempts to be anything more than that fall a bit flat.

Some of these issues could be overshadowed by a great story, but unfortunately that falls flat as well. Unholy’s protagonist is Dorothea Linde, a former member of the cult of the Eternal Spring who’s trying to figure out the mystery surrounding the appearance of her supposedly dead son Gabriel in the In-Between. There’s some very light development into the cult’s message and goals, plus some conflicts surrounding the mysterious old woman and Dorothea’s late father, but really, this all serves as little more than window dressing for what quickly becomes a basic “rescue the kidnapped character from the bad man” plot. It’s painfully basic and filled with cheesy horror tropes in a way that feels more uninspired than endearing, with clunky dialogue and voice acting certainly not helping matters. The ending moments are clearly trying to create a moment of a triumphant power fantasy in contrast to Dorothea’s weakness over the rest of the story so far, but it’s so overindulgent, and the game has up to this point already done such a poor job of keeping you weak in the first place, that it just completely fails to land. At its worst, it’s cringeworthy, and even at its best it just doesn’t really do anything interesting that hasn’t already been done to death before.

It’s because of all this that Unholy’s relatively short length really is its saving grace. Playing through the story at a reasonably thorough pace (I got the majority of the optional collectibles and upgrades) only took me around 12 hours total, which I think was the perfect sweet spot of length. Any shorter and it would’ve felt undercooked, any longer and it would have definitely overstayed its welcome. At this length, while I could definitely feel the cracks in the gameplay pretty hard by the somewhat frustrating final chapter, I was still able to enjoy the experience and feel like it was complete. The flaws are apparent, but so are the strengths, and the game smartly ends before the former has a chance to outpace the latter. I have to respect the developers for correctly assessing exactly how much game their mechanics and story could support and cutting it short there—I’ve seen many a title which in its hubris continued way longer than it had any right to, and Unholy dodges this problem quite cleanly.

Ultimately, I enjoyed Unholy quite a bit in spite of its many problems. It may be very simple, it may not push the envelope of its gameplay, and it may not do anything that hasn’t been done before, but its smart level design allows it to elaborate on its concepts well enough to sustain a short and mostly sweet experience with some great highs that overshadow its lows in my memory. It’s nothing special, but that isn’t a bad thing for a game of this scale. The biggest takeaway from this release, in my opinion, is that Duality Games is a studio to keep an eye on. While not their debut title, Unholy is definitely their most ambitious project yet by a pretty wide margin, and while it’s far from perfect, it’s clear as day that there’s a ton of talent on this team, from the level designers to the art directors to the sound designers. This is a studio with a lot of potential, and I think Unholy is an important, if incomplete, step in realizing that potential.


Unholy is developed by Duality and published by HOOK. It is available for PC.

Hope Pisoni is a Paste intern.

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