Unrest is a game all about talking to people. There's little by way of direct violence in this indie RPG adventure title from Pyrodactyl Games, instead the emphasis here is fixed firmly on the notion of playing a role, wrapping yourself up in a character and then making some rather weighty decisions.
This is absolutely my jam.
The scene is set in the city of Bhimra, with the game taking its cues from a fictionalised, fantastical vision of ancient India. The years have not been kind to Bhimra and its population, and interminable famine, drought, and burgeoning slums have brought the city to the brink of utter collapse. An uneasy treaty with a neighbouring Naga empire, whose citizens are a giant race of snake people, would seem to be the answer, but in exchange for provisions and welfare, the Naga are looking for jobs for their skilled workers. Unlike Bhimra's caste system, the Naga empire allows for greater social mobility, but even so, there are only so many opportunities to go around.
That doesn't sit too well with certain pockets of Bhimra's society, however, particularly out in the slums where an influx of immigrants would seem to be the absolute last thing their city should be undertaking in a time of famine and strife. Riots start kicking off, and a royal visit to the areas of deprivation, designed to illustrate the benefits of the treaty with the Naga empire, goes horribly awry. Everything goes downhill rather quickly after that and you the player, are in charge of determining a future path for Bhimra across eight chapters and five different playable characters of varying standings and affiliations.
What unfolds is a branching narrative that explores a number of themes aren't often broached in gaming. The mutual distrust between the people of Bhimra and the Naga empire is something that has to be managed very carefully. The heightened emotions of a desperate population require careful balancing, or may prove ripe for exploitation. Moreover, out of the caste system we are given characters with firm social divisions, and much of the tension in the narrative comes from characters bushing the boundaries of their social station and risking upsetting the balance of things. It's especially interesting playing as the Naga, being careful not to cause offence if you're role-playing as a diplomatic sort, while still seeking to uphold and defend the traditions and behaviour of your people.
Unrest is striking simply because it eschews traditional heroes and abandons RPG conventions in favour of placing the player in control of underprivileged characters, and approaching the conflict surrounding Bhimra from multiple perspectives. It's a little like Heavy Rain in some ways, approaching the narrative from multiple angles but not deviating enormously from the big plot points. There's a strong sense of consequence to the decisions you make, but they're more character-related than anything else. Even when I attempted to force change on subsequent playthroughs, the effects were limited.
Part of that is down to the game's structure. The shifts in perspective from character to character are rather abrupt, and if you finish a chapter without resolving any side missions you might have picked up, well, that's too bad. Each chapter finishes with a short epilogue detailing the after-effects of you decisions and actions, but sometimes these can prove a little surprising. That's not necessarily a bad thing -- it's nice to have options that aren't brightly painted blue or green for good and red for bad and there were options I'd perceived as being positive that, upon later reflection, I saw could've led to negative outcomes -- but once or twice I was left questioning the logic of the game. There's a system that details your relationship with other notable characters, serving up feedback bars for Friendship, Respect, and Fear, but it doesn't actually seem to have an enormous amount of bearing on your conversations, instead simply being used to illuminate rather than assist the reactive nature of the game. What you're left with is an interesting setup, but not much depth.
It would be remiss of me to not mention the aesthetics. I'm still not sure I'm sold on the visuals. Although I like the way in which the colour and vibrancy of the game's handdrawn visuals juxtapose the grim reality and the desperation at the heart of Bhimra's society, and sometimes the game can look really rather impressive, there are also times that the game looks a little like a gaudy flash game, not helped by the oddly animated sprites. The music, however, is far better, and really helps to root the game in its Indian setting.
The grand narrative arc, the story of Bhimra is a fairly strong one, and there are pockets of narrative decision-making that prove heartbreaking, but the chapters are too isolated to really elevate Unrest into "great" territory and most of the character do little to affect the main story. I can't help but feel that had one or two more stretch goals been reached, and if the game had expanded potentially into a second city, made longer and deeper and allowed for more time with the characters involved, then the grand tapestry of interweaving stories that Pyrodactyl were seemingly aiming for might have been realised. As it is, Unrest is a game worthy of your attention -- a fresh take on the role-playing game that bravely explores societal themes often left untouched in this medium, and does so with a praiseworthy commitment to dialogue and communication -- but it also feels like there's an opportunity missed here.
- Multiple perspective approach is well worked
- Unconventional characters make for a refreshing experience
- Focus on dialogue and communication allows for exploration of societal themes
- Cracking soundtrack
- Awful, clunky combat (but thankfully rare)
- Character sprites are pretty awful
- Too many gamified systems (FRF bars, character traits) that appear to have little bearing on the action
- Isolated chapters make for an isolated, jarring emotional experience
The Short Version: Unrest is a game both fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. Its foundations as a communication-focussed, character-driven RPG with a unique setting and multiple perspectives on a situation of civil unrest are incredibly interesting, but ultimately the game can't quite bring it all together and the end result is something of a rushed piece with unrealised potential. Refreshing, certainly, but sadly flawed.