If you ask most people today what they like about adventure games, it’s almost always some echo of what Telltale brought to the genre: compelling characters, weighty themes, choice and consequence. Less so is it about the genre’s crunchier roots, from the likes of Monkey Island or King’s Quest to other SCUMM-adjacent titles, where you’re building up an inventory of items and solving puzzles. Enter Unavowed, a game that effortlessly marries past and present and encapsulates it in an expertly told fantasy noir detective story.
Unavowed—which initially released in 2018 for PC, but has now found its way to Switch—follows a clandestine group of investigators that seek to keep the city of New York safe from supernatural threats. At the start of the story, that threat is you; the game begins in media res during your exorcism, where you’re able to choose an origin story for your character. From there, the bulk of the game features you and the rest of the Unavowed trying to piece together the crimes your possessed-self committed over the last year.
The story takes some twists and turns along the way, but the game is short enough in its run-time that the mystery never gets too convoluted. More than that, it means its darker elements—of which there are many (murders, hauntings, possessions, just to name a few)—are all the more confronting when they do worm their way to the fore. Those same elements never feel suffocating however, thanks in large part to the humanity of its cast, and the sincerity of the voice actors portraying them.
Unlike most adventure games however, Unavowed lets you tackle some investigations in whichever order you choose, and further gives you the freedom of deciding which members of your squad you take with you, each with their own unique—often magical—skillset. While usually this simply resolves into different ways of solving the same puzzle, more crucially its about what texture their personality will lend the current mystery. I frequently found myself agonising over which members to take with me because I enjoyed them all so damn much.
With that in mind, and the fact that you can also choose one of three different origin stories for your character, Unavowed actually offers something of a rarity for the adventure game genre: replayability. While the story still follows the same broad strokes, there’s enough permutations on offer—origin story, party composition, dialogue choices—that those looking to pull on all the narrative threads and tease out all the warmly written incidental dialogue will have something to savour here.
The brunt of most investigations boils down to pretty standard adventure game fare: engaging in dialogue to gather hints, collecting items, and figuring out how to use said items and hints to open doors and portals and the like. While classic games in the genre often had inscrutable logic or—heaven forbid—hard fail conditions that locked your progress, Unavowed has no such barriers. Most of the puzzles are straightforward, and if one can be failed, the game generously checkpoints you to the start of the encounter.
But what really makes Unavowed stand out is its near-religious adherence to the visual style of its forebears, from the way its characters move around the environment in stilted walk cycles, to its hissing, sibilant, low bit-rate audio. None of this ever feels performative nor perfunctory either: it’s homage. It also never gets in the way of modern artistic flourishes that would have been simply impossible on the creaking and wheezing hardware of the 90s. Environments are broad, blocky tapestries, but they’re given life through animated sheets of rain and twinkling sodium lamps, and they’re rendered in a persistent colour palette that makes every disparate frame of the game immediately identifiable as a piece of a uniform whole.
There really isn’t anything bad to say about Unavowed. It’s one of the most confident adventure games released in a long while. It shows that developer Wadjet Eye have a keen understanding of not only narrative structure, but of the adventure genre as a whole. If you’re looking for an earnest, fully-realised adventure game that harkens back to the genre’s roots, while also putting deftly-written, three-dimensional characters at its forefront, then look no further.
Developer: Wadjet Eye Games
Publisher: Wadjet Eye Games
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.