Indie Wonderland: Unholy Heights

A few hours in

So yeah, Popman and Popean didn’t actually move in together. It looked to be that way, and that’s actually a thing that can happen, but it didn’t. Because I forgot Popman died to adventurers. Instead, Popean found a lover independently. That’s something that can also happen in this game: monsters walk up to the board, looking for a home, but then they’ll go “Wait a minute, that attractive [same monster of the other gender] is single? I’m getting me some of that!”

So instead, Popean shacked up with another Cheep called Peeyon. They, er, did a lot of what the game creatively calls ‘engaging in pillowtalk’, where a pink heart icon noisily flashes over the door to their apartment a whole bunch of times.

Pictured: ‘talking’.

Later on, Popean and Peeyon even had a child, Pyopo! All was well in Room 101 for a while… until both Popean and Peeyon bought the farm fending off adventurers. Poor Pyopo was left all alone, in the spacious, well-decorated, expensive Room 101, growing up without parents or love.

So I kicked him out. Kids don’t fight and they don’t really make any money, and have you seen the kind of rent I could be charging on this place?

Plus, being the literal Devil, etcetera.

The Room 102 Watermin family of Mizom, Poolana, and their daughter Poolette fared better. As powerful ranged combatants that I was a little more careful with, Mizom and Poolana lived to see their daughter grow into a beautiful walking puddle, and their apartment become more and more furnished, beautiful, and expensive.

And then they started falling behind on rent payments. I don’t know why! Maybe their demand for luxury finally outstripped their financial independence? Whatever the case, I was more lenient with this family than I was with many others: previous malpayers were ruecksichtslos evicted, but for the Poolies, I lowered their rent payments time and time again, hoping to find the sweet spot that would allow them to stay without painting me as a major-league chump.

It didn’t take, however: after three missed rent payments, the Poolies figured saw writing on the wall where there wasn’t any, and they fled like thieves in the night.

Not entirely sure what their game plan was, here: where do you go to outrun Satan, the actual Devil?

Oh, and I also managed to add a second layer to my condo! After beating a gang boss from the nearby town, and accumulating the 1500g I needed, a team of Worker Cheeps renovated the whole complex.

Of course, doing so attracted the whimsical wrath of the Legendary Hero, Sieghard. He charged his warhorse through my apartment complex, murdering all my inhabitants without breaking a sweat, before reaching my tent and… kind of giving up on the whole idea, and leaving.

I’ll be honest: I have absolutely no idea what happened in that office.

And throughout it all, I sat behind Unholy Heights’ controls: rousing monsters to combat, selecting quests, renovating apartments, and generally having only the faintest possible clue of why I was doing anything and what this all was leading up to.

My review of Unholy Heights is this: I have no idea why I’m doing any of the things I’m doing. I can identify and understand the individual systems well enough to interact with any of them, and I can almost see how and where they synergize, but if there’s any kind of identifiable end-game here, I’m not seeing it. And even my control over the sub-systems is highly, incredibly limited. I don’t feel so much like I’m playing and controlling an interactive game, as that I’m occasionally nudging events as they play out in an otherwise independent soap opera for mythological monsters.

Mythological monsters and weird-ass fish people.

Okay, that sounds a little more harshly unfair than intended. Let me try to explain.

As I’ve mentioned, I can see the intent behind Unholy Heights’ interlocking systems. The Quest Board provides objectives, both of the optional and the story-advancing kind. I want to do the story quests, which means I want to have powerful-enough monsters of varying denominations living in my apartment in order to successfully complete the story quests. Monsters grow more powerful, among other things, based on their satisfaction, so it’s in my best interest to meet each monster family’s wishes regarding their apartment layout. But that takes money, and rent money is slow… so I turn to the Quest Board for a quick buck.

Oh, and certain quests also actually unlock new items or even monsters. Nerd Cheeps and Plant Elementals showed up naturally, after the Cheep and Elemental factions started liking me better, but I had to fight tough battles for Fire Elementals and Zombie Undead.

I don’t actually remember where the rocket-shooting House Snails came from?…

In theory, it all fits together decently well. In practice…

I think my main problem is that this game is unsure of what it wants me to be. I’m the Devil, and my ‘goal’ is ‘world conquest’. So obviously, the monsters are, to me, a means to an end. And I should use them as such: milk them dry for rent money, then send them to die against the endless waves of invaders at my doorstep, for my increased material gain.

But as I quickly learned, happy monsters are powerful monsters. One reason I kept the Pool family around as long as I did was because of their Ecstatic happiness level, which added +10 points to their Attack, Magical Defense and Physical Defense stats. Which amounted to, in order, a 52% increase, a 100% increase, and a 1000% increase. And the Watermin are tier-1 monsters: I can already tell that the bonuses will likely be proportionally higher for higher-grade inhabitants.

And it takes time to build monster happiness, too. After the Pool family bailed on me, the next Watermin I hosted in the apartment started at the regular ‘content’ level of happiness. Started out complaining about the high rent, too, the moocher.

So survival-wise, it seems like a good idea to stick to and pamper the monsters that you manage to attract. This idea is reinforced by aspects of the apartment-decorating game mechanic. If you look inside an apartment, the monster living there will immediately tell you two things: what their contentment level vis-á-vis the rent level is, and if they want something from you. And they’re not in any way oblique about this, either: it’ll straight-up be ‘Give me Fridge’ or ‘Give me Desk’ or ‘Give me Smutty Wallpaper’.

Even when *currently behind on the rent*, monsters will make demands of you.

So okay, alright, you start sticking with the monsters you have. That works, to a certain extent. They grow happy, the grow more powerful, they find lovers and get children, and all is well in monster-town.

But then Unholy Heights starts hitting you with specialized missions. Like the early two-star ‘Rain Champions’ mission, which sets the weather type to rain for three waves and suggests you find monsters that ‘do well in that kind of weather’. Watermin and Abyssals do, but Fire Guys and Cheeps get stronger in sunlight. Which makes then good matches for the mirror mission, which promises three waves of relentless sun…

Oh, and have I mentioned Elementals and Abyssals hate each other? Demons and Demi-Humans do, too. Put any two of them in the apartment complex, and all of their content-increasing wants and needs are replaced by a ‘I really hate [those guys]’.

It can be difficult to draw certain kinds of monsters, as a result. I really had to make one empty room Abyssal Heaven, and turn down like a dozen luckless Cheeps, before I found even one fish-guy willing to move in. In a later version of my apartment, jam-packed with Elementals of all kinds, even that didn’t help. They just don’t want in, yo.

So which is it, Unholy Heights? Do I treat my monsters as disposable minions, drawing them in and kicking them out based on my demands du jour and ignoring their petty inter-species feuding? Or do I treat them as valued tenants, take the cards I’ve been dealt, and carefully work my way through higher-level challenges with a minimum of deaths?

Using some clever pathfinding tactics to do so?

I don’t honestly think it’s intended to be the former, because that would turn Unholy Heights into a weirdly convoluted, boring, literally two-dimensional RTS — albeit with some cute unit design. But if it’s the latter, like the whole apartment-building and contentment-raising mechanics seem to imply, why am I so often invited to be callous and heartless about my tenants? Why is battle outcome so randomly determined by which monsters are and aren’t home at any given time, something I seem to have literally zero control over? And why are my tenants so often so dumb about everything?

No, T’chiYn-Koth! I’m telling you to run away! Don’t suffer the same fate as Nmxila-Txebbu!

I’m probably making Unholy Heights out to sound more exciting than it actually is, here. While the battles can admittedly be fun tactical challenges, the reality of the situation is that a lot of this game is spent waiting. Waiting for rent payments to come in, so I can buy my tenants medicine and stuff. Waiting for tenants to heal and find lovers, so they’ll be at maximum combat strength. Waiting for quests to start, hoping all the while that your melee-line fighter won’t decide to up and leave and godDAMNIT, he’s going to work, guess I’m reloading the last ten minutes. And waiting for your tenants to get bored of their current apartments, so they demand better and more expensive stuff, so you can buy it for them to raise their contentment, so they become better fighter.

Seriously, though: like 70% of my Unholy Heights Experience was going from door to door, buying each tenant the swag they wanted and then raising the rent levels to maximum-rent-for-maximum-happiness. 25% of it was spent waiting for time to pass, the game set to triple-speed, for money, challenges, or whatever random monster I was trying to lure to my apartments to finally show up. Only the remaining 5% was spent battling… which, again, mostly boils down to ‘deciding which monster door to click on when’, and ‘catching enemies in simple pincer formations’, and ‘hoping to God that my vulnerable monsters don’t get caught in traffic jams, preventing them from being able to flee to the safety of their apartments’.

And… I’m still having some fun with it, I guess? I know, I can’t really explain it; I’m as surprised as you are.

Final thoughts

Unholy Heights is a weird, weird game. It’s a cutesy 2D sprite game about the Devil raising a monster army to take over the world. It’s game about making your monster tenants happy and growing to care about their happiness, but also about using them for fodder to advance your poorly-defined schemes. It’s a slow, plodding game, except when the challenges arrive and you’re suddenly scrambling to get all your dudes in order. It’s fairly unique, and oddly compelling, and unquestionably Japanese.

Please don’t ask why this skeleton is engaged in peeping behaviour. It was difficult enough for me to get to terms with the fact that two of them were shacking up, earlier.

And I haven’t even mentioned the oddly engrained sexism in its visual design: almost all female monsters, bar one (so far), are just the male monster models with some pink colouring and a bow tie (or equivalent) in their hair. No, but seriously. Cheeps, Watermin, Plantkin, Centaurs, Werewolves, even those rocket slugs. Even skeletons.

Seriously, though.

And yet, as mentioned, I had some fun with it. Unholy Heights’ slow nature actually works in its favour for finding it a niche: it’s an excellent video-watching or pod-casting game if I’ve ever seen, quietly going on in the background with a minimum attention draw — until you’re suddenly needed for an intense minute! Then, back to plodding.

I also can’t deny that a large part of me enjoying Unholy Heights is from its weird, nonsensical setup and setting. Its weird mix of Western and what I assume is Japanese monster mythology, wrapped up in this bonkers the-Devil-went-down-to-Georgia plot, is just too charming to grump at for too long. And if that sort of stuff appeals to you, too, you might get a few chuckles out of Unholy Heights, the same way I did. If it doesn’t…

Unholy Heights can be acquired for four-bucks-equivalent on both Playism Games‘ site and Steam. Both sites offer a demo, so as always, make good use of this vital information.

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4 comments

  1. Interesting; sounds like a combination of The Sims and Recettear. Seems a bit too information-light and slow to be worth getting, but it’s always cool to see an off-the-wall game like this.

  2. I’ve been reading like, twenty of these Indie Wonderlands on BSoA this week, so just want to say ‘keep it up’!

    (And I can just imagine a kid version of you playing a game in his formative years, and it starts: “The president’s indie games backlog is getting too big. Are you a bad enough dude to save him from playing the kinda crummy stuff?”)

    1. Appreciate the kind words! I don’t know how much longer BSoA is going to remain online, but probably not all thát long… so, you know, get it while the going’s good. Or I could keep it online for a little longer, as an archive of sorts… I’ll have to check the traffic stats.

      If things keep the way they’ve been for the past three years, I’m going to need someone to save me from the avalanche of my own backlog.

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