My Year of the Roguelike
2017 may be the year of the rooster according to the Chinese zodiac, but a glance at my Steam activity seems to suggest that it’s been my year of the roguelike. The genre, one defined largely by randomized playthroughs and permadeath, has been a blooming one for quite some time now, but it wasn’t until recently that my brain was pollinated with love for it. The latest roguelike to pique my interest is Unexplored, a dungeon crawler that sticks fairly true to the genre’s standbys as you explore the the dangerous wilds.
Visually Drab and Not Too Complex
I’ll admit that Unexplored does not make a particularly favorable first impression. Before really beginning the game it becomes immediately apparent that this isn’t a visually inviting experience, both in terms of the game’s actual visuals and it’s off putting user interface design. Your hero is a yellow blob with one eye and a cape-ish looking thing (or a one-eyed blob of a slightly different shade of yellow with a slightly different shaped cape if you decide to use the extremely limited and largely pointless customization options) who runs around through a top-down depicted world fighting enemies that are, for the most part, made up of a few shapes put together. I understand that minimalism is in vogue right now, and it can be quite beautiful in certain games, but I couldn’t shake feeling like I was playing a mid-2000s free flash game the way everything looks and moves. The menus, which include your mini map, a scrolling log of what’s happened in game, your inventory, and your equipped items, are all on screen at all times, and are nested into huge grey bars that take up a little under half of the screen at any given time. I will admit that some of it’s functional. I did find it incredibly handy to quickly swap my weapons without pausing, but other elements, like the activity log and inventory, I would have greatly appreciated the option to hide.
In Unexplored, combat is not complex. You’ve got the pointy weapons that stick out in front of you and poke enemies to death, and you’ve got your ranged weapons like bows or magic staffs that blast baddies from afar. You’ve got shields you can raise to protect yourself, and you’ve got throwables that must be picked up to use again. Though simple, the combat is satisfying. I don’t play a game like this for combos and deep, strategic encounters, but there is emphasis placed on positional control. Enemies do a good job of trying to get to your backside where you can’t attack them, and when overrun it’s often times a better strategy to try and run away or kite your enemies to a room you can better deal with them in.
Contrary to the wisdom of teachers or athletic trainers, in this adventure your avatar won’t get any better with practice and experience. There’s certainly merit and just cause for roguelikes that implement some sort of carryover XP or stat system to encourage you to keep playing and help you progress, but there’s also something empowering about games that don’t, like Unexplored, in which you’ve got everything you need to succeed from life one. Even individual runs don’t rely on level-ups, instead basing all of your power and potential on the items you pick up or the books you read. Sure, this makes success even more dependent on the RNG, but it also lets you focus on exploring and surviving instead of seeking out fights for XP.
This is a good thing, since exploring is definitely something that I had the most fun with. In fact, I almost wish the the game had less combat and more dungeons focused on puzzles, although I suppose the amount of each changes with each playthrough. While many other roguelikes I’ve played, even the really good ones, often times feel like their levels have been randomly put together with an algorithm, I seldom got that impression with Unexplored. Puzzles, though simple, seem intelligently designed with just the right amount of backtracking. I was occasionally beckoned to travel back to previous floors with clues about how to get to a secret room or receive a reward. Bosses popped up in places that made sense, and were generally fun (though tough) to take down. It all feels very connected, for lack of a better word, which is something occasionally hard to find in games like this.
I don’t think that Unexplored is ever going to knock anyone’s socks off, but it is a fun little game that I think is worth it’s low asking price. It probably isn’t one that I’ll be coming back to much after my time spent with it for this review, but, then again, not everything has to be. It’s dungeons do feel pleasantly organic, but outside of that it just doesn’t really do anything outstandingly better or differently than others in it’s genre. For some this sense of “been here done that” may be too much, and I think that’s reasonable. For others, solid is more than enough to warrant a purchase, and I think that’s just fine too.
Combat is satisfying, no carryover stats after death give you all the power from the beginning, and dungeons are very well put together.
The art style didn’t work for me, UI is visually unappealing, the game doesn’t really add anything new.