all’s well that … avows well?

A little while ago (okay, nearly a year ago) I played through and not so much reviewed as mused on Wadjet Eye’s Blackwell series. I mentioned at the time that there was also a sequel called Unavowed and now a mere whole-lot-of-months later, I’ve finally got around to playing the darned thing and can ramble on about it at length for the three people out there who especially care what I think about point-and-click adventure games.

Quick recap for those who don’t remember/aren’t gamers/don’t care but are still reading for some reason. The original Blackwell saga was a five part series (pentology? pentalogy? quintet?) of games following a young woman named Rosangela Blackwell who discovers on the death of her aunt that she is a “bestower of eternity”, basically a fancy name for a spiritual medium, who goes around talking to ghosts and laying them to rest and stuff. They’re a good little series of games, with a nice overarching story that hints at a larger world.

That larger world is the setting for Unavowed.

Oh, spoilers coming as always, I’ll put some space before the major ones because this is one of those rare examples of a game/story/text where spoilers might actually spoil something.

Straight out the gate, Unavowed is more ambitious than Blackwell (or at least, more ambitious than any individual instalment of the Blackwell series), giving you multiple different options for the player character—you can be male or female, and start the game as a cop, an actor or a bartender, and each of these choices (well, the background choices, gender seems mostly cosmetic which is fair enough) appears to have a significant impact on the game (I should stress that I say this having only played once, but unless I got particularly lucky—I went cop—I felt my choice was very well integrated). You get a brief spooky intro during which your character has his/her first encounter with the supernatural, then gets possessed by a demon, blacks out, and wakes up a year later being exorcised by a half-djinn and a slouch-hat-wearing fifties fire wizard (Gilbert seems to have a thing for slouch-hat-wearing fifties guys, which is fair enough, I mean don’t we all). It turns out you’ve spent the year doing mass-murdery things and are very close to being arrested, but now you’ve been picked up instead by this team of mystical monster hunters called The Unavowed (which is the title of the game, d’ysee).

And before we go any further, I’ll say that I really liked this game but I have a serious love-hate thing going on with the name. Because it sounds super cool but … what does it actually mean? Like I’m used to avowed being used as a modifer for other adjectives, usually personality traits or beliefs like “an avowed cynic” or “an avowed atheist” but then does being “unavowed” just mean not being anything in particular? I suppose technically “avowed” means “publicly stated or admitted” and since the unavowed is a secret organisation then any member of the unavowed is, like a kind of recursive acronym, an unavowed member of the unavowed which is an organisation the existence of which is itself unavowed, at least to the general public. Although since they also do self-define as members of the unavowed to each other then that makes them avowed members of the unavowed…

I digress.

Anyway, you join the Unavowed which initially just consists of the half-djinn (Mandana), the fire mage (Eli), and the group’s leader, the full djinn Kalash, who is also Mandana’s father. They let you in because you save them from some kind of extradimensional thingummy called a “ligamental” proving to the group that while the ability to fight with a sword or conjure flame by pure force of will is useful, nothing can stand up to the adventure game protagonist’s power to combine arbitrary objects with other arbitrary objects. The team is soon rounded out with Vicki (a cop who’s also your former partner if you take the cop background) and Logan (who’s a “bestower of eternity” like Roseangela from Blackwell whose spirit guide is the child KayKay, who Rosangela helps to pass on in that series).

The continuity with the previous games is handled … okay-ish? There’s this whole plot point where they explain the Unavowed not getting involved in the events of the Blackwell series because they usually leave Bestowers alone on the grounds that death is part of life, which makes ghosts part of the natural world, while the job of the Unavowed is to deal with the supernatural. This distinction seems, frankly, a little spurious. After all, some of the entities you deal with are things like dryads and naiads, spiritual manifestations of natural real-world phenomena. Why would the spirit of a tree be “supernatural” but the spirit of a dead human not be? Part of me wonders if it wouldn’t have made more sense to just blank the whole thing and just accept that not every supernatural crisis would be directly handled by the Unavowed. It feels like one of those situations where the explanation is less plausible than the thing it’s trying to explain.

There are six missions in all in the game, spread around different districts of New York, and the whole thing has a certain love letter to the city vibe (there’s even a shoutout to the rainbow bagel craze from a few years back). Once you’ve picked up Logan and Vicki from the first two missions, you can complete the remaining four in any order. You can bring two companions on any given case (five’s a crowd I guess?) and each has unique abilities to help you solve the mystery—Mandana is good at fighting and can spot lies, Eli can burn stuff and also read any text that has been destroyed by fire (this happens a surprising amount), Logan can talk to ghosts and Vicki has the weight of mundane law enforcement on her side. The two-at-a-time thing is a bit artificial, but it makes the game feel very replayable (disclaimer, I have not actually replayed it). You get to the end of a scenario and—at least if you’re me—your first thought is “I wonder how that would have gone differently if I’d brought the other two.”

The basic premise is that while in possession of your body, a demon called Melkhiresa was running around the city stirring up supernatural chaos in order to create hotspots of mystical energy (this is a little vague) that she/he/it could tap in order to create a pocket reality. Which is a little bit phase three profit (I am aware that meme is super dated) but let’s just go with it for now shall we? Each mystical hotspot involves summoning up some mythological being, usually one of a fairly archetypal flavour—you have a dryad, a merman, some ghosts, a Chinese spirit called a ba jiao gui (somewhat cheekily, the entry on this spirit in the in-world text you consult to understand its nature is exactly the same as its wikipedia entry), a faerie and so on. Pretty much all of these creatures have been summoned into the world against their will, and while they’ve usually fucked shit up pretty bad, that’s usually not their fault (with a couple of exceptions). As a result, the moral dilemmas you get at the end of each mission feel genuinely dilemma-ey rather than the classic “kill the puppy save the puppy” non-choice you often get in this kind of game. Often you’ll have the option of undoing or reversing some of the harm that the creature caused, but at the risk of killing it, or you’ll be able to send the creature home but at some further cost to somebody else. On the occasions when the supernatural instigator of the chaos is just malicious, there are still usually reasons why killing it outright wouldn’t necessarily be the best call.

Structurally, the game borrows a certain amount (not necessarily directly or intentionally, I’m using “borrows” here to really more mean “resembles”) from Bioware’s classic RPG Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. You start off with a fairly linear segment while you get your core party together, then there are several hubs you can visit in whatever order you prefer, but before you get to the last one there’s a sudden dramatic development that recharacterises the entire game.

So yeah, this is where the heavy spoilers kick in.

If you’re leaving now, short version. Unavowed is a really good point-and-click adventure game. It’s very accessible (virtually all the puzzles are intuitive and none of them rely on the “moon logic” that so famously characterised the genre in the ‘80s), potentially to the point of being too easy if you’re a glutton for puzzle-themed punishment. You can get it on Steam right now for a tenner (and it’s the sort of thing that gets reduced fairly often if you’re phobic about paying full price) and is worth a look. You absolutely don’t have to have played Blackwell to enjoy it, and both work fine as an introduction to the world and, for that matter, the genre.

Okay, now that’s out the way. Spoilers.

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Do people even do that any more? I could probably set up some kind of funky tag where this is all just blanked out until you mouse over it. But whatever let’s just assume I’m being deliberately retro.

Anyway, the basic premise of Unavowed is that you’re following this creepy demon called Melkhiresa who is some kind of ancient spirit of knowledge who spent a year running around in your body doing awful things, all of which you have spent the rest of the game undoing. Just before the final mission, you wake up to find yourself no longer in control of your body, screaming inside your own mind while somebody else talks to your friends wearing your face.

There follows a long push-pull between you and the other presence where you say things like “give me my body back” and “go back to the void, demon” and Melkhiresa responds with things like “you have no idea, do you?” Which is all ominous and foreshadowy. Then your friends catch you again, and repeat the exorcism to cast the demon out into a magical circle where it can be banished. Only what comes out isn’t a demon, it’s a human spirit. And it turns out it wasn’t the demon Melkhiresa who caused all the carnage, it was you—or rather, the person you thought was you, because you are actually Melkhiresa, who had been summoned from the void and spent a year trapped in the body of a sociopathic magician, forced to tell her/him where she/he could find suitable sources of magical energy to power the creation of a pocket reality, which had been your plan all along.

Now … there’s quite a lot about this that is a bit fridge logicy. Like I seem to recall that you get onto the trail of Melkhiresa in the first place because you were using that name while you were running around being evil for a year, but since in reality the person running around being evil was you, and Melkhiresa was just an unwilling passenger in your mind providing you with information, it’s not clear why you would have used her name rather than your own. And it seems weirdly convenient, misdirection-wise, that Melkhiresa has such a specific personality and set of powers. She has access to the memories of your character, but can also modify those memories for her own comfort and also—despite being a demon and as far as I can tell therefore having no real notion of morality of any kind or any reason to value human life—specifically modifies those memories in such a way that she not only remembers murders you committed as having been committed by somebody else, but also remembers your life from the perspective of somebody who isn’t a high-functioning psychopath when it’s kind of clear that your character is in fact, a high-functioning psychopath.

On which subject … yeah I’m very much in two minds about that aspect of the twist. Basically it’s kind of the plot of that one episode of Angel where the little boy is possessed by a demon but it turns out the little boy is really the evil one and the demon is just trapped inside him. Like on one level I really dig the humanity is the real monster style twist. On the other hand I’m always a bit bothered by just a psycho as a motivation for a villain, partly because it lacks nuance and partly because it’s often a very unhelpful way to portray mental illness. Obviously your mileage here may be very different from mine, but speaking personally the reason it works so well for me is that the setup isn’t so much “you did all this stuff because you’re a psychopath” as “you did all this stuff because you’re a psychopath, and you’ve spent your whole life pretending not to be a psychopath and that had got to the point that it was so draining that you decided to build your own world that you could shape around yourself, which led to the summoning of Melkhiresa and the other events of the plot.” And that … actually makes a twisted sort of sense.

As a spiritual (put not intended but should have been) successor to the Blackwell series it works really well. It has the same core ideas (fairly pulpy supernatural mysteries, strong emphasis on relationships with NPCs, a lot of heart). As a literal sequel the seams look a bit rougher (the “ghosts are part of the natural world but dryads aren’t” thing really narks me—also the whole reason you meet Logan is that your evil alter-ego set up a specifically ghost related event as one of her sources of mystical energy, how does that work if ghosts are “natural”) but it’s fine. As an adventure game in its own right, it’s really well put together, the puzzles are fun and intuitive and involve the absolute bare minimum of combining everything with everything else. There’s a strong emphasis on dialogue with NPCs that makes it feel meaningfully like you’re investigating something rather than just clicking on stuff, and the party mechanics make you really care about your companions.

Some people will think it’s too easy. Then again some people thought Dark Souls was too easy.

Overall, though, I’ve yet to be disappointed with a Wadjet Eye game and if you feel that pointing at and clicking on some things is a way you want to spend nine-hours-ish then you could do a lot worse than Unavowed.

playing
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2 Responses to all’s well that … avows well?

  1. Pyo says:

    I liked it, and I agree that it’s a good adventure game … but … it’s kinda “just” good? Blackwell was mostly also good. And had a bunch of issues in various places. But the personal story I found quite compelling; so that stood out to me.

    While Unavowed I found in the end somewhat forgettable. Everything about it is okay, but nothing really drew me into it.

    But maybe I just didn’t like the idea of not getting more Blackwell.

  2. Wmd says:

    Thanks for your July game review! Always appreciate a clever dissection.

    Has anybody in the world been able to resist actually reading spoilers?

    I haven’t been gaming much in the last few years, but have lined one of these up to try…so I will let you know if I am sucked back into the procrastinating void…

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