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On the surface, Unrest appears to bring together all the right ingredients for an irresistible indie fantasy RPG. In a genre obsessed with unfolding heroic quests in Tolkien-inspired worlds, Pyrodactyl Games made its Kickstarter-funded project stand out from the start by setting it in a fictionalized version of ancient India. Committed to originality, the developer wanted to create an unconventional story-driven adventure that would react realistically to player decisions. Unrest makes a bold attempt to meet this lofty goal, but ultimately falls short.
Fittingly named, Unrest transports players into a land faced with upheaval. A prolonged drought has brought starvation to the streets of Bhimra, a once great city divided by a rigid caste system. To resolve the disaster, Bhimra's royal family signs a treaty with the neighboring Naga Empire, a wealthy nation of snake people. Distrusted by Bhimra's downtrodden slum-dwellers and the populist priest who leads them, the Nagas' presence in the city only results in further turmoil. Conspiracy, tragedy and intolerance soon combine to set the stage for a conflict over the city's future.
No ragtag band of heroes can save the day in Unrest. Instead, players control a hodgepodge selection of characters who might normally make up the supporting cast of a more mainstream RPG. These include an aging Naga ambassador, a peasant girl faced with an arranged marriage, a priest loyal to a radical temple, an opportunist mercenary captain and a princess cast onto the streets. Control over these diverse protagonists switches from one person to another as players complete a series of character-centric levels.
These snippets of story often overlap to form a more complete picture of the game's political narrative. For instance, you first learn about Bhimra's upstart firebrand priest when moseying among the cloistered nobles who oppose him. Visiting the slums that survive on his charity, however, paints a much different picture of his character. Experiencing the same circumstances from different points-of-view defines Unrest's approach to storytelling. At one point, the game even shifts a character into a playable role after painting him as a clear-cut villain in previous chapters. Constantly stepping into new roles helps to personalize each of Bhimra's competing factions, and introduces potent ambiguity.
While all RPGs need a narrative, Pyrodactyl Games clearly placed more importance on telling a story than it did programming diverse gameplay elements. Conversing with NPCs takes up the majority of time spent exploring the game's isometric environments. Combat doesn't exist outside of rare text-based encounters, where attacks take the place of dialogue options. Most goals are completed by finding the right people to talk to. Along the way, an in-depth journal neatly keeps track of all the quests, characters and items encountered in a level. Minuscule side quests exist, but don't provide particularly gripping diversions.
As can be expected from a text-heavy title, making decisions and navigating dialogue trees comprises the bulk of Unrest's interactivity. A rudimentary conversation system does its job, providing a satisfying selection of responses when speaking with NPCs. Different responses can change how a person in the game feels towards the player's character, increasing or decreasing the three bars that represent their emotional state of mind. Playable characters can also gain traits based on the stances they take in conversations.
Despite the importance placed on making tough decisions, it often doesn't seem to matter whether you please or anger people in Unrest. The story follows a predetermined arc, and players can only influence pinpoint details that affect how it plays out. Choices rarely impact the events of future chapters to a great degree. For instance, when controlling a peasant girl married off to an unpleasant suitor, players can either choose to stay the course with the marriage or run away. Take the second path, and the girl's escape will be mentioned in future chapters, but only offhandedly.
With Unrest, Pyrodactyl Games set out to tell a mature tale of human suffering, and largely hit the mark. You're made to feel empathy for the people of Bhimra, through both their stories and the moral dilemmas they present. Find medicine to treat an old man slumped over in the streets, or search him for valuables to further your own survival. Only hand out bread to the impoverished humans gathered in a temple courtyard like you were told, or share the food with a starving family of Naga outcasts. These decisions carry more weight when playing in Mortal Mode, which eliminates the option to reload a previous save, cementing every action players take. I only wish morality in the game resulted in deeper tangible consequences. Often it feels like moral choices carry little resonance in the story. Good deeds are rarely rewarded and evil acts frequently go unpunished.
Overall, Unrest doesn't fulfill the potential promised by its opening levels. Put plainly, it simply ends far too soon, so much so that the credits literally caught me by surprise. All the social animosity presented throughout the game is barely resolved by a rushed epilogue that leaves Bhimra's fate up in the air. I was dumbfounded by how incomplete the story felt. Not only does it frequently drop plot threads, but many playable characters disappear from the narrative without a satisfying conclusion to their stories. I suppose the concise length at least encourages replaying the game and trying out alternate solutions to quests. Doing so, however, brings only modest enjoyment.
Though limited by obvious budget constraints, I can't fault Unrest for its visuals and music. Textures look a tad smudged in places, but overall the game's charming minimalist art style works remarkably well. Fluid animated character sprites stand out nicely on hand-painted environments. Meanwhile, traditional Indian music captures the right mood for the setting, even if the limited number of looping tracks can grow repetitive.
Unrest takes advantage of the freedom offered by crowdfunding to ditch genre conventions, but stumbles along the way. Smart writing and believable characters create a compelling setup for a story that unfortunately doesn't pay off the way I wanted it to. The insignificance surrounding many major decisions and an inconclusive ending hinders an otherwise admirable RPG. If an India-themed low-key PC adventure with light fantasy mixed in sounds like your thing, Unrest is worth a look. Just don't go into it expecting a fully realized experience.
Unrest was reviewed on PC with a personally purchased copy. This review was originally posted at GenGAME on August 2, 2014.