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Should I be excited about… Unrest (PC)

I’m pretty sure you’ve never played a game like Unrest before. I’ve certainly never played anything like it. Yes, it’s got an inventory and a map and a journal and many other tropes of a conventional RPG, but while a lot of this game feels familiar, a lot more feels unique and original. The setting, the characters, the art and the music blend together to make something intriguing. Visiting the world of Unrest – an ancient Indian city – reminded me of all my most exotic holidays. The hand painted art style and the evocative ethnic music are striking and pique your curiosity immediately.

UnrestAs you can tell I was very much sold on Unrest’s game world from the outset. It’s probably because so many traditional fantasy settings (ancient feudal Japan, Tolkein-esque medieval England) are played out. Castles and ale houses and Buddhist temples and dojos are all great settings, but they’re stale and overused, and this version of ancient Indian is not a typical RPG setting. Initially I thought Unrest had a purely historical setting, but the arrival of giant snake creatures in the story dispelled this notion. This is a fantasy world, but one whose culture, traditions, fashion, architecture and religion are all evoking India, as opposed to any of the more traditional fantasy mainstays.

Visually the game is a mixed bag. Character animations are basic and when you walk you seem to slide over the environment. You can play with pad or mouse and keyboard, but clicking feels more natural, and the environments are interesting to explore, with their watercolour, slightly washed-out style. I would say the art oscillates between functional and evocative, with the slightly cheap feel of the characters and animations offset by the prettiness of the environments.

2014-07-15_00008While the developers describe Unrest as an RPG, I felt it was a bit more like a traditional point and click adventure. There are attributes and an inventory, but the attributes are all related to conversations and affected by the dialogue choices you make, while the inventory items are generally handed out to NPC’s to complete missions. Giving bread to beggars might make their “friendship” meter go up, while telling a rich aristocrat that you have no money or possessions might see their “disgust” meter rise.

You play as a variety of different characters from different races and social classes throughout the campaign, and their unique viewpoints give you an overview of the complex societal and cultural problems of the city. This is a story about politics, diplomacy, racism, sexism and cultural differences, and the writing is – for the most part – up to the task of dealing with these weighty issues. Whether you’re playing as a young, literate woman struggling against patriarchy and an arranged marriage in a male dominated culture, or as a diplomat from a distant empire that’s subject to prejudice, the games does a great job of putting you in that characters shoes. Unrest is all about asking hard questions, and with the choices you make in each mini-episode affecting the lives of the other characters you play as later, it does a good job of showing the consequences of your actions. Letting a zealous, racist priest preach hate to the masses early on in the story may well have repercussions later, when you are exposed to the angry cults his sermons have created.

2014-07-15_00006There’s a degree of roughness to Unrest at this stage. It’s not always clear where you have to go to walk off screen and reach another area. This can lead to clicking around the edge of the screen looking for the exit. It’s also not possible to talk to someone till you walk close to them. This makes sense, but you can’t click on a character to walk over and talk to them. Rather, you need to click on the ground next to them, then the cursor will change to allow you to chat to them when you get close enough. Little niggles, but when combined with some of the rougher interface design and generally cheap feel of the presentation it detracts from the sense of quality of the overall product.

These little concerns aside, Unrest is an exciting prospect. Its most interesting feature is its emphasis on consequence. A seemingly meaningless conversation with one character can have huge repercussions for another. In particular, it highlights how the powerful people in society make decisions that may be for the greater good, but which can have the most despicable results for those at the bottom, with mob lynchings and children starving in the street. It’s a grim, realistic world, and the issues it tackles are universal. In the world today we still struggle with the same issues: racism, sexism, poverty and inequality, and as a result everything feels relevant.

2014-07-15_00005If I could make one other criticism it is that the first issue, racism, should be tackled directly rather than through a surrogate via the snake people. We’ve seen mutants and super heroes and aliens used as allegorical representations for racism towards minority groups for years, so can’t we just actually tackle racism directly now? Aren’t games developers mature enough to tackle this issue head on instead of through adopted surrogates?

Still, the very fact that I can write about such issues in a game preview (when mostly I just get to write about whether you can dual wield SMG’s) shows that Unrest is a mature, interesting game. Pyrodactyl are making something important and they have something to say. I’m glad their Kickstarter was a success and I hope they build upon what they have created so far.

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