Unavowed

Unavowed
Developer: Wadjet Eye Games
Available on
Steam, itch.io
Price: $19.99

Your four companions (from left to right: Logan, Mandana, Eli, Vicki) stand in front of a red, raining sky with the title Unavowed. Logan is half-smiling, holding a glowing orb in his hand. Mandana looks straight ahead, sword at the ready. Eli has a fireball in his hand and calmly looks ahead. Vicki smiles as she looks at the others, both hands gripping her gun that is pointed to the sky.

I come back to Unavowed every once in a while. Certain things are like a comfort blanket to me, and this game is one. The urban setting of New York City, especially in the dark and rain, feels familiar to me even without being native to it. The characters are all beings that I enjoy interacting with and have knowledge about magical things that interest me. The mundanity of the setting combined with the fantastical characters and plot lines combine to create my ideal game.

Wadjet Eye Games has been a favorite studio of mine since I first played Gemini Rue, a cyberpunk point and click. The studio was created by Dave Gilbert who always designs, writes, and programs the games, and is one of my favorite Jewish creators. The studio specializes in point and click pixel games, and while I consider several of them my favorites, Unavowed is the standout to me.

A character portrait of Mandana smiling is accompanied by the words, “Welcome to the Unavowed, my friend. Trust me. Your life will never be the same.” A female player character, her, and Eli all stand in an alley behind a building. It’s dark and raining.

Unavowed begins with your character (you choose a name, gender, and career) having a demon exorcised from their body by two people in an exhilarating introduction. After having gone on a murderous rampage for a year, your character remembers nothing that’s happened nor can they go back to their normal life because they would be arrested immediately, so the exorcists offer them a job. Join them: the Unavowed. A group of supernatural investigators and demon hunters with branches around the world.

New York City hasn’t had many supernatural crises in a hundred years, to the point where the group has dwindled to three before you join. None are what they seem at first glance, Mandana (Sandra Espinoza) is a sword-wielding Jinn/human and Eli Beckett (Frank Todaro) is an accountant-turned-Fire Mage. Kalash (SungWon Cho) is the head of the Unavowed, and he’s Mandana’s serious father, a blue, muscular Jinn.

Because of the possession you’ve become void touched, so you can now see what the mundane (non-magical beings) can’t, making you the perfect candidate for tracking down the demon that had possessed you and figuring out their plans. You go around New York City investigating different supernatural mysteries, all the while trying to piece together your past from sporadic flashes of memory. The player and the character both have no idea about their past, which works eerily well at putting you in the character’s shoes for when you are confronted by past victims and start realizing what’s going on.

What looks like a bald human is at the center, erupting from fire and with flames coming off him. The character portrait shows he’s crying fire, his skin is cracked and fire seeps out, he is covered in flames. The female player character, Eli, and Mandana all look at him in shock. They’re in a sewer.

As you progress in your journey you recruit Logan Brown (Logan Cunningham—yes, the incredible narrator from Bastion), a bestower of eternity. This is someone who sees ghosts and helps them pass on to the afterlife in peace. You’ll recognize Logan’s abilities if you’ve played the Blackwell series, and he, too, is constantly accompanied by a spirit guide. KayKay’s (Violet Young) a ten-year-old girl who loves teasing him and the mobile game Trollgate. You also recruit Vicki Santina (Arielle Siegel, who voices Kathy Rain in the game of the same name), a former police officer, with a very thick Staten Island accent who takes no bullshit.

Unavowed takes inspiration from Bioware’s RPGs in a variety of ways. Your choice in backstory is heavily reminiscent of Dragon Age: Origin‘s, where you get to play different origins based on your race and class, and each career grants you a different ability whether being great at deception or incredibly empathetic. It’s Wadjet Eye’s first game where you get to choose your party (and the first time I’ve encountered such a mechanic in a point and click). Depending on whom you take with you, puzzles and solutions are created and avoided. You even get to hear banter between the characters as you walk around, a favorite feature of mine from Bioware, but also rare in point and clicks.

Each mystery is almost a self-contained episode, you’ll only put the overarching puzzle together at the end. The mysteries start off banal and end up more complex and frightening than at first glance. The puzzles are intricate, often made clear through deductive reasoning, but a handful are a bit more difficult in classic adventure game style. I struggled figuring out the passcode for an elevator for quite a bit of time until I gave up and used a walkthrough, but that wasn’t the norm thankfully.

Logan, Vicki, and the female player character all stand in a room with weapons decorating the walls and a training dummy at the center. There are stairs going up, a door to another room, and curtains that lead to another room. Logan says, “Maybe. But wondering ‘what-if’ is like growing an orchard in the desert.”

At the end of each mystery is a difficult choice, with the pros and cons laid before you, but here they feel more high stakes than other games that advertise choice. While adventure games are often narrative heavy, adding these extra elements of customization and decisionmaking make Unavowed on another plane of existence. Their previous games had toyed with the idea of replayability where the overall ending could change, but you’re not going to necessarily replay something just to change the final five minutes. This is the first game to hold true with new things to discover upon each playthrough from beginning to end.

All the characters are voiced except your character (à la Dragon Age: Origins), each having life breathed into them through their backstories that you get to uncover as you progress. The voice acting by everyone in the game is superb as is usual for the studio. Gilbert has been making a name for himself in the world of voice direction in Wadjet Eye’s games and other adventure games like Kathy Rain, Whispers of a Machine, and Technobabylon.

As expected from Gilbert, the writing is impeccable. In the game’s commentary, he says how writing dialogue is his favorite thing, and it’s clear how much care is put into every word. Even the descriptions when you hover over items and backgrounds are grounded in realistic details. Each character you encounter is fascinating, making you want to talk to them forever. Over time you can grow closer to your companions and learn things they may not feel comfortable discussing on their first day of knowing you. Each has a past, their own traumas and desires, and the game begs you to discover them.

The female player character, Logan, and Eli all stand on some sort of ice formation in the sky. There are pointy icicles everywhere. The background shows New York City enshrouded in red and orange. There is a baby in an icicle crib with an icicle nanny exploding in a ball of fire as she says, “In some cases, it is known as a limited liability company or a partnership.”

The art and animation by Ben Chandler is exquisite with its atmospheric locations, utilizing color theory and lighting in interesting ways. It has more detailed pixel work than any games the studio previously made because of the increased pixel resolution. I especially love the character portraits by Ivan Ulyanov, which blend into the game perfectly. The constant rain and music by Thomas Regin fits the noir ambience with ease. It all brings an additional layer of moodiness to the world as you explore the five boroughs: the Bronx, Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan.

Unavowed asks you to look beyond the veil and see what is ignored even when in plain sight. We all have the capacity for kindness, and sometimes the most important thing you can do is leave the world better than you left it.

Top 10 Games of 2019

Here’s my top 10 games that I played in 2019.

10. Shardlight (2016)

A pixelated environment reminiscent of 90s point and clicks. Everything is tinted green. A person stands at the center with a red hood, grey sweater, tattered black pants, and brown boots. To their right is a ladder going into the ground. To their left is a shard of something that seems to be radiating green. To the right of the screen is a sign that says “60” with a red circle around it. The background is filled with old cars, buildings in pieces, dead trees, and factories. The sun is off in the clouds, peeking through.

A game by one of my favorite studios, Wadjet Eye Games, wasn’t a disappointment. It’s set in a strange dystopian world where the world has all but come to an end. Everyone who isn’t part of the Aristocracy is inevitably going to die because they can’t afford life-saving medicine, and the way they keep the proletariats placated is by having a Vaccine Lottery. You play as Amy Wellard who is trying to win this lottery, but ultimately she believes there’s a cure, and she’s going to find it. This is an excellent point and click adventure with multiple endings, an immersive story, and interesting characters.

Eat the rich!

9. Uncharted: Lost Legacy (2017)

Two women stand back to back. The one on the right is Chloe Frazer. She is facing more towards us, aiming a pistol. She has unkempt black hair in a ponytail and a red shirt. The one on the left is Nadine Ross. She is aiming a machine gun towards the sky, cocking it while looking back at us. She has black hair in a ponytail and black shirt with an army vest on top.

Not a game I had ever planned to play, but while I was cat sitting for the first time, I was told to play any and all games I wanted, so I tried a bunch. This was the only one that stuck. I haven’t played any of the Uncharted games (though I do plan to change that now), but I really enjoyed this one regardless. It’s not often I see AAA studios making games headlined by two women of color (though I am upset to find out both are played by white women, even if one is Morrigan from Dragon Age), and I liked their relationship together. The environments were nicely detailed when in Indian cities and really pretty when in the wilderness making me want to explore. While I don’t really know what it is about this game that made it stick with me, it did.

8. Elsinore (2019)

Getting to play a retelling of Hamlet as Ophelia is a lot more fun than I thought when I first read that. I spent countless hours running through time loops and wasn’t ever desperate to reach the end. Finding a new storyline, a new secret, a new ending was exhilarating and surprising. Games like this make me happy crowdfunding exists. You can read my full review here.

7. Night Call (2019)

A black and white scene. A bearded man is standing outside in the rain, leaning against his taxi. Behind him is a building lit up by his taxi’s lights and a police car speeding by. The Eiffel Tower towers over everything.

This murder mystery noir is a unique experience in video game form. You play as a taxi driver in Paris, picking up passengers of your choosing and chatting with them, attempting to figure out who tried to kill you. Your passengers aren’t what you’d always expect (my favorite non-human was a cat) and picking up passengers more than once doesn’t mean the conversation will repeat. The world is brimming with ambience, and when I’d forget about the murder plot it would even become comforting. The most interesting part of the game is getting to progress relationships with the characters, not solving the murders, because this was often difficult to do.

6. A Plague Tale: Innocence (2019)

A young girl and boy’s portraits beside each other. She is older and taller but not by much. Both have dirt on their faces. Around their faces are bare tree branches and a sea of rats.

The moment I began this game also while cat sitting (but this was a game I had gotten), I was stunned by the locations. They are unbelievably gorgeous. The graphics were incredible, especially for someone like me who’s used to playing retro(-looking) games. It was quite cinematic at times when it came to the story, the visuals, and the effects. I don’t recall playing a game and genuinely feeling like I’m in a movie very often.

The story was unique and interesting, while some may think this game is based on history with the bubonic plague, it’s actually taking place in a fantasy world, so it was hard for me to predict what would come next. I also enjoyed the game’s mix of stealth and unique action from the perspective of children who aren’t used to having to get violent. When the protagonist is forced to kill someone for the first time, the game pauses as she is horrified at what she’s done and has a bit of time to mourn her innocence.

It’s a game unlike any I’d played before, and I look forward to whatever the studio makes next.

5. Katana Zero (2019)

Hand-drawn samurai holding his katana jumps down onto other men. The drawing is a high contrast between pinks, oranges, blues, purples, and blacks.

One of the sleekest games I’ve ever played. The gameplay is incredibly fast and fun. The soundtrack is exactly what I need on a late night driving through the rain. The story is compelling, though I do hope we get more of a conclusion than when I finished it. The art is pixelated just how I like it but still somehow so fluid. This is just an amazing game I can’t recommend enough. You can read my full review here.

4. Life is Strange 2 (2018-2019)

A teenage boy walks in front wearing a backpack. A younger, shorter boy walks behind him. They are walking along a road in a dense forest, sun peeking through.

This is a game whose story has left me thinking about it for a long time afterwards. The only game I can remember having this lasting of an effect on me was Emily is Away Too. This story delves into topics of police brutality, racism in the USA against Mexican people, child homelessness, and more. It’s a harrowing experience much of the time, sometimes being too real and sometimes being too relentless with the racism (at least as a Boricua playing the game). The story was much deeper and darker than Life is Strange.

The nature locations were really pretty and almost relaxing. I really loved playing Sean Diaz, more than Max Caulfield (which is surprising given how similar we are). I don’t encounter media often where the protagonists are Latine, and while I still want games where their story doesn’t revolve around their ethnicity, it’s important to have games like this as well.

My only complaint is while I know they wanted to touch on real life issues, it was too much to handle at times (maybe not if you’re white, in which case this is a good eye opener for you). I also wonder since the developers are French how much (if at all) they consulted with US Mexican and Latine people.

3. Kathy Rain (2016)

A pixelated environment reminiscent of 90s point and clicks. An elderly woman and a young woman sit on a couch in a living room. Everything is different shades of brown. There’s a bookcase, family portraits decorate the wall, and a table with a teaset. The young girl has black and red hair, she’s wearing a leather jacket, jeans, and black boots. The elderly woman is in a black and white dress with greying short hair.

Easily my favorite point and click of the year because as strange and creepy as it can be, it was like a comfort blanket for me. I played it and loved the hell out of it, and soon after I watched a let’s play of it because I wanted to be back in its world. The Twin Peaks/X-Files vibes provide warmth. The fact that the story, art, voice acting, etc. are all great, and that the game was made by one person made me appreciate the game even more. If you love adventure games, you can’t miss out on this one. You can read my full review here.

2. Dishonored Series (2012, 2016, 2017)

The three covers from Dishonored, Dishonored 2, and Dishonored: Death of the Outsider. The first shows Corvo Attano in his classic skull-like mask, black hooded cloak and pants. His arms are in an X, one gripping a sword, and the other glowing with symbols. The second image shows Corvo with his daughter, Emily. Her face is covered except for her eyes by an elegant handkerchief. She sits on a triangular chair, her left hand glowing blue. Corvo stands to her left wearing an upgraded version of his mask. Both wear blue and black. The third image shows Billie Lurk in the center of her ship. There are dozens of meters behind her. She wears a red jacket, brown pants and gloves, and an eyepatch. The entire image is tinted red.

This is a series so fantastic, it feels wrong choosing only one. Each has different strengths and weaknesses, each has something different and exciting from the others, but each is all set in the same rich world. One that at first glance seems like ours, but upon further inspection is quite different. Surprising to me in a game of this genre, especially in 2012, choices matter. There’s always something going on, a rat plague, infected civilians, and bloodfly infestations, and depending on whether you choose to be violent (high chaos) or a pacifist (low chaos), the story and difficulty of the game change.

1. Marvel’s Spider-Man (2018)

Spider-Man is in an action pose, holding on to his web as he swings. The entire background is red, fading into black at the corners.

This was a game that took me by surprise. When I first heard of it the year prior, I thought nothing of it. Another superhero franchise? Booooring.

I was so happy to be wrong.

This game is unabashedly fun, cheesiness and all. Swinging through the streets of Manhattan is exhilarating, even the music that starts to swell makes you feel heroic. The story is an intricate patchwork of various characters you play as, supervillains you get to fight, and missions you get to go on. If you haven’t played this yet, PLAY IT.

Elsinore

Elsinore
Developer: Golden Glitch Studios
Available on
Steam, itch.io
Price: $19.99

A painting of Ophelia in a purple gown with a purple flower in her tightly coiled, dark hair. She cradles a skull in her hands, looking at it despondently. She’s standing in a graveyard with the castle of Elsinore sitting atop a hill in the distance.

Elsinore is a point and click adventure game unlike any I’ve ever played. It’s difficult to explain, so the best albeit incomplete comparison I can make is that it’s Hamlet meets Russian Doll. You get to play the tragic character that we barely knew in the original play, Ophelia. Where she once was a vague victim, Elsinore’s Ophelia is quick-witted, cunning, and brilliant. She can be some other adjectives depending on how you play her.

We start off in the midst of the play: Hamlet seems to be losing his mind and there are strange forces afoot. Strangest of all, Ophelia’s had a nightmare in which every single person at court dies. Is this a premonition or simply a night terror?

Over the course of four days, the events of the play occur. Hamlet’s seen something that’s driving him mad. Polonius dies. Ophelia is killed. But then the play and the game diverge. Here, a hooded figure tells Ophelia that they don’t want to kill her, but they have to, and they’ll make it seem like she drowned in the pond. She is run through by a blade. But then… she wakes up. Four days earlier. In bed. Hamlet in her room again, mumbling mad ramblings. She exits, and… Polonius is alive? Scolding her again for spending the night with Hamlet.

Elsinore truly is a матрёшка (Russian doll), with layers upon layers of story, character, angst, and intrigue. As you open one doll, five more appear. Every time I thought I had reached the conclusion, something else I didn’t expect happened. The story continues winding its relentless path for us to explore infinitely. You must figure out who’s friend and who’s foe and try to avoid death hundreds of times. The game is based on Shakespeare after all and so tragedy easily befalls the characters. Anyone can die based on something you might not have thought to be so tragic. Details that would be superfluous in a lesser game reveal much beneath the surface.

Timeline of Loop 26, highlighting Thursday at 20:19, “Ophelia presents ‘Hamlet Must Be Disciplined’ to King Claudius.” There are a variety of events displayed on the screen with each character’s portrait on the left.

You’re given a timeline which shows all possible events in this universe, when they’re happening, where, and with whom. When you witness these events, they unravel more of the story’s threads. There is also a journal where Ophelia keeps track of all the threads she’s pulled, so you know what you need to do next and can easily recount what happened previously. While not recommended until you’ve played through several time loops, there is also a reset button, so you can wake up once again and start a new loop.

If you follow any single character around for days, you see they all have their own lives: they speak with different characters, they go to different locations, and participate in different events all on their own. Depending on whom you speak to and what information you share with them, the game responds quickly and has everlasting effects on that time loop. Every time Ophelia wakes up again, she remembers everything that has happened before.

A brief aside on the characters that I must mention, the diversity of them within the game is a delightful surprise. Ophelia and Laertes’s mother is African, so they are now mixed race. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are now two women of color. There are LGBT characters. There are even brand new characters added to the story to expand the possibilities of this retelling even further.

Gif that shows [1] Ophelia waking up in her bed, [2] Ophelia running down a hallway, [3] Laertes and Hamlet dueling as Ophelia, Bernardo, Horatio, King Claudius, and Queen Gertrude watch, and [4] a book with images of the characters overlaid, red blood stains cover their eyes one at a time, as Ophelia and Laertes grimace.

Elsinore tells us there is no happy ending. Even when you have hundreds to choose from, there will always be something bittersweet about them: people have died, you’ll never see or speak to your family again, the kingdom will be overtaken by Norwegian powers… There are also two secret endings, one so dark and twisted where Ophelia loses her humanity over time, only seeing people as puppets in a show, happily manipulating time and traveling to different worlds.

In the end, I chose the other secret ending. I sacrificed CHOICE for REVENGE. I burned the Book of Fates. I lived in an endless time loop, centuries gone by only living through four days at a time. No one ever remembers what happens, people die thousands of deaths, lovers forget you ever existed. The wretched villain is the only one aware of what’s happening. They are forced to be Ophelia’s companion and her prisoner. They can never harm anyone again because Ophelia will not let them leave. It’s not a happy ending, but it is a heroic one, and to me, it falls in line with who Ophelia shows herself to be over the course of the game.