Unrest - Staff Review  

The Unrestables
by Zach Welhouse

Click here for game information
Less than 20 Hours
+ Nuanced writing brings life to the characters and setting.
+ Multiple viewpoints explore the story from different angles.
- Not enough choices matter.
- Character traits are mostly cosmetic.
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   Life is full of tough choices. Wrestling with a thorny problem for long enough can justify even the most immoral choices. Pyrodactyl Games' Unrest depends on this quirk of human psychology to create an engaging political thriller peopled by flawed, believable characters. The story takes place in a fantasy world shaped by Indian history and legend. Famine and disease rack the ancient city of Bhimra. Trade with the Naga Empire could save the seat of human civilization, but not everyone's willing to accept the bargain. Despite their classy robes and copious jewellery, naga aren't especially popular in Bhimra: they're giant snake-monsters interested in human jobs, food, and resources. The resulting period of unrest is explored through the eyes of several characters, including the princess of Bhimra, a naga diplomat, a priest, a peasant facing an arranged marriage, and a mercenary captain.

   Conversation and human relationships are the heart of Unrest. While it is possible to enter a physical altercation, complete with its own mini-game, most conflicts are verbal or political. Nevertheless, Unrest is dangerous. Making the wrong choices (or the right choices, handled naively) will lead to death or loss of agency. It isn't always clear which choice will keep a character in the story, even with generous context. The stakes are kept high by the overall suckitude of Bhimra's situation. Frequently, every choice offered seems burdened with repercussions. Choices matter, for better or worse. It's gratifying to see characters from a prior chapter acting on plans set into motion by earlier conversations.

   The world is well-presented, and quickly gives the impression of being a nuanced society. The writing and characterization are definite high points. Learning about the characters doesn't just provide a sense of who they are, but how the rules of their society have shaped them. Meeting an influential noble is a completely different experience as a peasant girl, a naga diplomat, and a smart-mouthed mercenary captain. Tension between the different castes makes socializing in Bhimra different than in most RPGs, which generally encourage rags-to-riches stories backed by linear advancement mechanics. Choices which seem like the "right" option to contemporary American morality aren't always well-received by an audience of Bhimra clergy or hardscrabble peasants.

Protip: OBEY Naga stand out in human cities. Can they be trusted?

   The existence of naga in an otherwise historically grounded game add further strangeness while providing a culture for Westerners to contrast with the socially immobile residents of Bhimra. The graphics and sound further enhance the world's character. The graphics are simple, but effective. Investigating them too closely reveals inhuman animation quirks and soulless eyes, but the overall effect is more satisfying. The 3/4 view and earth-tone intensive palette is reminiscent of an early MMORPG, but the shocks of bright color add a touch of storybook festival. The soundtrack uses classical Indian styles and instruments across several moods. While there aren't any standout tracks, their overall presence is positive.

   Unfortunately for the world, fewer choices end up mattering than at first blush. Unrest's narrative is similar to the "fires in the desert" storytelling model: many of the choices only influence the story that occurs in the player's head. One player may decide the peasant girl forced into marriage with a vulgar oaf reacts with ironic humor and spleen, but ultimately accepts. Another player could play the same peasant girl with world-weary acceptance. The first player would be treated to lower friendship and respect ratings from most of the villagers, but wouldn't have a material difference in the game's outcome. There's something to be said for allowing players to define who they are, but a game about choices requires more control. Thankfully, many choices have more observable results. Some choices provide characters with traits, which memorialize their attitudes. For example, joking with a human merchant as a naga diplomat unlocks the Disarming trait. Being insulting in court unlocks Venomous. Some of these traits reveal additional conversations. However, more could be done with traits. Despite their promise, many end up acting like temporary achievements.

   Unrest encourages multiple playthroughs. The game offers an Iron Man mode, which prohibits multiple saved games; moreover, the story can be completed in under three hours. Since the map overlay shows the key characters in each scene, later playthroughs are even shorter. Curiosity demands going back and seeing if life would be better for everyone if the mercenary captain was more bloodthirsty or the princess was more political. Many of these routes are worth exploring, but others are just beautifully disguised variations on Dragon Warrior's "But thou must" non-choices. Moreover, it's possible to take pretty different paths through each of the characters' scenarios and still get similar endings. As such, the replay value is only moderate until future patches provide greater variety.

How important is friendship? This boy is not your friend and he does not respect you.

   Skipping between characters reveals the complexity of Unrest's interlinking conflicts. Stepping into the shoes and necklaces of characters from different backgrounds opens up conflicting views of race, gender roles, caste, and ethics. As one NPC helpfully points out, "We're only ever going to have a couple different perspectives on this whole mess, and you really have to understand every side of it to fix it." Many games that offer multiple perspectives eventually contrive to have the point-of-view characters team up--or at least fight toward the same general goal. Unrest takes the more complicated route. While it's possible for everyone to work together, they are often compelling reasons not to do so. Encouraging peasants to agitate for a better lot in life makes the nobles nervous; working for a dodgy temple helps a lot of needy people, but also supports its more insidious actions.

   Unrest aims high and doesn't quite live up to its hype. The number of non-choices could say something depressing about fate for critics interested in following that interpretation, but more than that it feels like the game could have benefited from more development time. The basics are sound and the story-telling is top-notch, but it's all over too soon to flesh out the story it wants to tell. Be that as it may, aiming for the stars has its benefits. Unrest's setting invites players to a world unexplored by most RPGs, and the writing showcases thoughtful consideration of characters and social issues. It isn't a game that will appeal to everyone, but those who like it will like it a lot.

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