Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
It’s been almost 20 years since the classic Sierra/LucasArts PC adventure game “died,” taken down in a flurry of complaints about Myst clones, awful 3D graphics, and jokes about improbable cat-hair mustaches. Of course, nothing in gaming really dies; it just evolves, and there’s plenty of adventure DNA lurking in all sorts of games today, from Telltale’s licensed Batman entries to Japanese visual novels to “walking simulators” like Gone Home or Tacoma. For die-hards like myself, devoted to the old “point-and click, apply verb to object” model that once sent so many youngsters scrambling for the walkthrough, the options are a little more limited, and almost inevitably lead their way to Dave Gilbert and the crew of old-school adventurers he’s assembled around himself at indie studio Wadjet Eye.
Gilbert’s been making commercial adventure games for 12 years now, getting steadily better with each installment of his well-regarded Blackwell series of paranormal investigations. This week, he finally released Unavowed, the product of four years of steady development on a new IP. And while “best old-school adventure game of the 2010s” might not sound like all that ringing of an endorsement, Gilbert’s produced something really special with his latest effort.
Plot-wise, the game has a hook that wouldn’t feel out of place on a low-budget cable show: Your protagonist suddenly wakes up in the middle of an exorcism—their own—as a team of supernatural investigators tries to yank them free of the demon that’s been riding their body for the last year, killing its way across New York. Freed from its control, they sign on as a member of the titular secret society, trying to track whatever it was the demon was up to in the year it had them in its clutches.
So far, so Syfy. Where Unavowed gets its real kicks in—besides the writing, which is uniformly witty and warm—is in the way it pulls design notes from genre classics like Maniac Mansion or Quest For Glory. Your hero spends the first half of the game assembling a crew of mystically empowered badasses to help unravel the demon’s plots, and the game forces you to bring only a pair of them along on every “case.” Want to talk to ghosts? Bring along your spirit medium. Prefer a more forceful approach? Call in an immortal half-genie, or a tough-as-nails New York cop. None of these branching puzzle paths ever get radically different, but the sense of control they offer, and the subtle variances in characterization they enforce, allow the game to feel huge and responsive in a way that its old-school predecessors rarely could. Even better are the ethical choices that crop up as each case progresses; they’re the good, meaty stuff, the kind of thing you might find in a big budget BioWare RPG. (But without all the cheesy romance sidequests.)
Unavowed is, unambiguously, Gilbert’s best game; all the little technical annoyances endemic to the genre’s modern efforts have mostly been ironed out, and his writing and design sense have never been better. But even beyond that, it’s a contender for a top entry in the adventure game pantheon, period. If you’ve got any old nostalgic feelings lurking in your heart for a _____ Quest or a Monkey Island, it’s definitely an experience worth seeking out.