Genre: Action, Adventure, Indie, RPG, Real-Time Roguelike
Release Date: 22 Feb, 2017
Whether you call them Roguelikes or Roguelites, they’ve been popular in recent times, with all sorts of games being put out at a rapid rate. There are some stinkers in there, sure, but for the most part it’s a really good time to be a fan of the genre. There have been some really amazing games released in recent times, both turn-based and real-time. Unexplored is certainly one that I’d rank among the highest, but let’s dive into it and find out just what makes it so good.
Despite that it is a real-time game instead of turn based, at its core Unexplored is using the solid foundation of a more traditional roguelike, which is very rare among real-time games in this genre. Your goal, of course, is to reach the very bottom of the Dungeon of Doom, find the Amulet of Yendor, and bring it back up to the entrance so that you can escape with it. Sound familiar? Well it should, considering the nature of the games that Unexplored clearly takes inspiration from. You’ll find a lot of traditional concepts here, from Orcs and Trolls, to potions, scrolls, and equipment that need to be identified before being used, and many other things. In particular, Unexplored seems to take the most inspiration from Brogue, with its all-important strength stat, among other things. Using all of these things as a base, it then goes off in its own direction, skillfully adapting concepts from turn-based games into a real-time environment. It begins building upon this foundation with what is possibly the most striking element of the game: the Dungeon of Doom itself. The game uses a concept called “cyclic generation” to create its levels, which results in the most incredible floor layouts I’ve ever seen in the genre. Each floor feels handcrafted rather than a random jumble of interlinked rooms, which is quite the incredible feat. These floors will have you traversing a complicated labyrinth of rooms and caverns, dealing with the game environment in a way that just flows very well, in a way that I’ve never once seen another roguelike do. While many roguelikes of any sort tend to have long “strings” of branching rooms, Unexplored uses interconnected loops to form its floors, which are connected in ways beyond just the layout itself.
The connection between rooms and major corridors isn’t limited to simple doors and hallways here. There are teleporters, “gliders” that allow you to float over the abyss, precarious bridges (which may collapse), and other things. But it goes beyond just the physical layout. Various areas of each floor are connected via things like switches and keys, in a way that adds to the general flow of a given floor. For example, you may run into a locked door, requiring a specific key (each key works only with a very specific door and no other). As you search for that key, you might run into a switch that opens a barred door on the other side of the map, which contains a teleporter to a secluded room, where the key is found in a chest. Normally, this sort of thing is only done in games with levels that really are handcrafted, but here, the cyclic generation constantly creates these fascinating connections that keep every area uniquely interesting. However, there is more to it than that, as the game also takes the usual concept of “locks and keys”, and abstracts it into something new. The “lock” may be a wide river of flowing lava, which you need to cross. The “key” then might be a Potion of Resist Fire, giving you the ability to walk across that river, or it may be a Staff of Cold, capable of freezing the lava into a temporary bridge that you can use to get across. There are so very many different concepts that the game will use in this way, and when combined with the cyclic generation and other things, it creates a unique feel to each floor that is unmatched in roguelikes as a whole.
These complicated connections extend even beyond the individual floors themselves, however. Unlike most games of this sort, each level isn’t generated individually as you progress. Rather, the entire dungeon is created in one go, and rather than being purely linear, different types of connections are set up between different floors. Some floors are what I call “hub” floors, with multiple possible exits, with only one path leading further into the dungeon, and other paths leading to optional sections that may lead to treasure, bosses, or other things. Sometimes these separate areas aren’t always so optional, though. A hub floor with four exits may lock the “true” exit behind a unique type of door, that requires three triangles to be inserted into it in order to open it. Some searching on that floor might give you two of those triangles… but where is the third? After further exploration, you find that one of the other three exits leads to a dungeon branch consisting of two other floors, and on that second floor, you find the third triangle, effectively creating a Zelda-like puzzle that spans multiple floors. Looping back up to the hub floor via a special teleporter, you can then open the special door and continue on through the dungeon, or perhaps you can explore the other two optional branches first, seeking out powerful magical gizmos to aid you in your quest. This sort of concept also extends to the variety of puzzles you’ll encounter, which often lead to useful items of all sorts. You might find a room with a blue door, and four pedestals, upon which are four animal figurines. Unlike a sliding block puzzle found in other games, simply looking at a given puzzle in this game isn’t enough to tell you what you have to do. Instead, you must seek out hints that give you the solution. These can come in the form of signs posted on walls, or books written by others who have passed this way. Those books may be on an entirely different floor, even. Once you’ve found the information you need, you can complete the puzzle and get your reward. You can, of course, also guess at it, but the vast majority of the time, this will simply lead to the wrong solution, corrupting the puzzle and forever preventing you from getting the reward. The puzzles overall are a very well-done aspect of the game, and add a lot to the overall gameplay, helping to break up the normal exploration and combat.
Speaking of combat, let’s go into that a bit. This may be a game that plays out in real-time, but it is far from being a game that requires twitch skills and super fast reaction time. Combat tends to be a slower, more careful and calculated sort of thing, where individual enemies are their own unique threats… you wont be charging through a room, flattening 40 zombies in the blink of an eye. Each confrontation can become very tactical, as you wont just be using your weapons to fight. If you want to survive the perils of the Dungeon of Doom, you also must make good use of the piles of items that the game will provide you with. Use a scroll of light to deal a massive burst of damage to nearby undead enemies, or fling a magic-draining potion at a wizard to shut down his ability to cast spells. You have tons and tons of options for how you approach each situation. The actual mechanics of combat are very satisfying and fun to use. The whole thing has a very good, precise feel to it, and there are a variety of different weapon types that add to it in their own way. What’s more, you can pause the game at any time. This allows you to hover over any monster or object with your mouse to gain information on it, or even use items from your inventory or change your equipment on the fly. This means that you always have time to think, and plan out your moves, without having to panic and try to deal with a large inventory while enemies are trying to stab you with flaming spears. It adds to the overall tactical nature of the combat, and really works very well.
It is fortunate that the game gives you the ability to interact with your inventory in that way, because items and equipment are all-important in Unexplored. There is no EXP or levelling in this game. No skill trees, no hotbar filled with crazy abilities and magic. Absolutely everything comes from your equipment, which makes up your overall character build. The one and only exception to this rule is your strength stat, which simply determines what types of equipment you can and cannot use, and is increased via special potions found throughout the dungeon. Other than that though, all of your stats and abilities are purely determined through the various magical things that you have equipped, or the various items that you activate during combat. There is a huge variety of items of all types in this game, from weapons and armor, to magical staves and scrolls. The sheer amount of content here is very impressive, and it means that each run through the dungeon will be different from the last. Of course, using that equipment isn’t always so simple. Like in many traditional roguelikes, most things of a magical nature start out unidentified. As you’d expect, unidentified items can be very dangerous. A negative sword may shriek at certain intervals, constantly attracting monsters towards your location. A potion may simply set you on fire or outright explode. And cursed equipment is the worst of all, as it cannot be unequipped until the curse is somehow removed. However, “negative” items aren’t all bad. Potions for example tend to always have some sort of use. That potion of explosions may be a terrible thing to drink, but it’s a fantastic thing to throw at your foes. Experimentation is key here, to find possible uses for the things the game hands you. Fortunately, the process of identifying all of these things isn’t as obtuse as it can be in other games. While other games tend to force you to take huge risks with things like potions, Unexplored offers a variety of ways to approach the identification process. For example, a scroll of magic detection will half-identify everything in your inventory, showing you whether a given item has a positive or negative nature, which greatly aids you in determining what each one does. Or if you have a huge pile of unidentified equipment, it may be a good time to use a scroll of remove curse, and by watching your inventory when you do this, you can note which things are affected by the scroll, immediately telling you that those items are negative. And of course you have much more direct methods, such as identification scrolls, which do pretty much what they sound like, for any given item you use them on. There are many ways to approach the whole concept, and that goes a long way towards making the game easier to get into, and much less frustrating.
Not that your quest will be easy, of course. A staggering variety of monsters awaits you in the dungeon, each more dangerous and devious than the last. Like any good game of this type, Unexplored isn’t afraid to beat you over the head with your own face. Threats are everywhere, from flying armored gargoyles, to deadly trap panels and flying blades, or gas vents that constantly spray poisonous fumes into the air. There are also bosses… many bosses, over fifty different types that you may encounter. Like with the items, there is an incredible amount of content in the game, and even after 100+ hours with the game, I’m still discovering new things, new ways for the game to murder me. Some enemies are fairly simple in terms of their concept, such as wandering trolls that wield huge clubs, or assorted foes decked out in full plated armor. Others though are more unique, such as mechanical spiders that cannot be harmed directly, but must be shut down via switches connected to each one, and all sorts of other creative monsters. The huge variety of enemies and traps in the game constantly keeps you on your toes, and also keeps each encounter interesting, particularly when combined with the layouts of the floors themselves, and the items and gizmos that you use to combat these horrors. Each battle is different from the last, each is exciting, challenging, and great fun, and like many other aspects of the game there are all sorts of ways that you can approach each individual battle. Chances are you will die fairly often in the Dungeon of Doom, but it never feels unfair, and you’ll learn more and more as you keep trying and dying. And no two runs will ever be the same.
There are so very many good aspects to the game, but no proper review would be complete without delving into the possible negatives. For instance, there is the graphical style of the game. While I personally think the game looks fantastic, the simple aesthetics of the game may be a real turn-off for some players who may be looking for a lot more detail and visual flair. There is also no persistent progression in the game, no constant improvement of character stats over the course of many runs, such as you can find in games like Neon Chrome, nor are there all that many things to unlock. There is the fact that you carry over gold from your last run towards your next, allowing you to buy supplies from the shop before entering the dungeon, but that’s about it (and what gold you don’t spend in that shop will vanish the moment you enter the dungeon). Of course, the lack of progression is a very subjective thing… some players outright hate persistent progression in games like this… but it’s very worth mentioning since it’s definitely important to some. The high difficulty of the game can also be an issue for some players, and so can the bewildering selection of items, monsters, and everything else, creating a tough learning curve, which is then enhanced by things like the identification system and the nature of the game’s puzzles and floor connections. And while the game is for the most part very stable, some players do run into the occasional crash. I have run into a rather frequent issue with screen-tearing despite VSync, which fortunately can be quickly dispelled by simply alt-tabbing out of the game and back into it, but even if it’s easy to get rid of, it’s an issue nonetheless.
As far as I’m concerned though, there really isn’t much to complain about with this game… the negatives are vastly outweighed by the positives. The dungeon generation is absolutely fantastic, the combat is tactical, fun, and challenging, the puzzles and devious traps add a lot of substance, and the game has an incredible amount of sheer content in it, all of which is very polished and well-balanced. On top of that, the developer clearly cares about the game, and constantly interacts with the community via Steam’s forums. Problems are looked into quickly, questions actually get answered, and suggestions from players have often ended up being added to the game. Like the wasps, hives, and the wasp queen, which were actually my own idea… you can blame me if you get stung to death by those. In an industry where so very, very many developers and publishers just outright ignore the communities that form around their games, it’s wonderful to find a developer that’s really genuinely interested in working with the players to make the game as great as it can possibly be. That’s a rare thing, really. Beyond that, there really is so much more that I could say about this game… but that’d mean pages of text, and this review is already long enough as it is. Despite the sheer number of roguelikes of all sorts that I’ve played, this one may be my absolute favorite among all of them. It is fun, and challenging, filled with tactical situations (despite it’s real-time nature) and absolutely fantastic exploration, while using concepts that will be familiar to fans of traditional roguelikes. It has become one of the very few games that I just constantly come back to and never tire of, which is exceedingly rare for me. This gets my highest recommendation, and if you’re a fan of this genre, if this sounds even remotely interesting to you, it’s very worth checking out… games of this quality are very few and far between. Dont miss out on this one.
(click on the image to see the rating explanation)