Indie Wonderland: Unexplored

A few hours in

Well, this was almost pretty embarrassing! My next run (confusingly titled ‘Jarenth’ for numerical continuity reasons) for a bit threatened to be my most successful run, ever. That’d have been a lot of build-up over nothing. Jarenth ‘the Wizard’, titled so for reasons I don’t understand, managed to reach the sixth floor in the dungeon’s non-hierarchical layout, even going so far as enchanting a short sword with a Rune of Death and slaying the legendary Ant Queen with the intent of forging her hide into armor! Alas, he died on the sixth floor, out of healing magic and rations, by plunging into freezing water when a levitation spell ran out. And then getting eaten by fish. T’was the fish that killed him, really.

Jarenth the First, pictured here, mere moments before his fish-related demise.

My best-ever run actually turned out to be Jarenth the Thirteenth, ‘the Archmage’, who made it all the way to a level 7 before dying in a gas explosion conflagration. He didn’t make it quite as far as Jarenth the Fourth, also ‘the Archmage’, who nearly took on a Cyclops before succumbing to its plant guardians. But then Jarenth the Thirteenth left his successor more gold, so.

Or rather, *is leaving* his successor more gold, because Jarenth the Fourteenth doesn’t actually exist yet.

Past Jarenth really screwed me out of an easy Unexplored review.

There’s no word in game description that’s undergone as much devaluation as ‘roguelike’. I’m guilty of this as well. Or ‘guilty’: I’m of the belief that language is at its best when it lets us communicate easily, and so if changing the meaning of words or making those meanings more fluid helps in that communication, then, go nuts. If I can say that a game is ‘roguelite’, or that it has ‘roguelike elements’, and you all immediately get an idea of what I mean, then that’s a good approach to communication, right? The more precise explanation that then follows to operationalize that idea is usually still shorter than trying to describe the idea entirely from the ground up.

But the unfortunate effect of that right now is that I can no longer say ‘Unexplored is basically a roguelike’ and have that hold immediate meaning. The clarifying explanation is essentially necessary. It’d have been so easy to say ‘Unexplored is like the game Rogue in almost every aspect, except it’s real-time instead of turn-based and uses free movement and position-based combat similar in concept to Joust or the Ys series of games’ and be done with it. But alas. I helped burn that bridge myself. No sense crying over spilt time that I could’ve spent playing other games.

At the very least, I’ve got more than enough applicable metaphor screenshots handy.

So. The longer way around, then.

Unexplored is a roguelike. Dangit, I just can’t avoid it. Unexplored is a roguelike, in the sense that it shares a ton of design similarities with Rogue, and other genre-definers like Nethack and Ancient Domains of Mystery. More the former than the latter. Each ‘game’ of Unexplored is a ‘run’ on a randomly-generated dungeon, consisting of various interconnected dungeon floors. These are filled with monsters, equipment, traps, magic items, puzzles, altars, stairs, and a slew of environmental obstacles. The overarching goal is to get to the bottom of the dungeon, grab the ‘Amulet of Yendor‘, and then hoof it all the way back up to the exit. Do that, and you win the game. You probably won’t win the game, though. The odds are stacked against you.

Different roguelike games have different approaches with regard to the player’s freedom in character creation. Rogue itself had very little of the sort, but games like Nethack and ADOM introduced ideas like different starting classes and variable starting loadouts, to add more variety to subsequent plays. Unexplored takes a… subdued approach to this. Initially, there’s no class variation. You have two options: You play the Adventurer or you go home. Later classes can be unlocked by getting certain achievements, such as unlocking the Archer by collecting 48 arrows at once. But different character classes… don’t do all that much. Compare the Adventurer:

Hmm, yes, I see. A venerable classic.

To the Archer:

Hmm, yes, I see. The New Coke of classes.

Other classes, like the Rogue, do vary a little bit in the ten listed stats. But… This is probably mostly on me, but I didn’t see a whole lot of influence for these stats. The game tells me that Nimbleness improves lockpicking chance and Stealth improves the chance to hide, but in practice regardless of character I always succeeded at the first and never succeeded at the second. The only stat of real immediate importance is Strength, which determines which weapons and armors you can use. And that one can go up during play from drinking the right potions.

Instead, the biggest difference between run starts is your character’s loadout. This has two components. One, your selected class has a particular loadout, like the Adventurer’s short sword and the Archer’s bow. And two, at the start of the run, you can use your accumulated gold to buy extra items. What’s that gold depend on? Why, it’s the amount of gold your previous adventurer picked up, of course. Sure, they very likely died deep in a dungeon you’re not returning to. But what’s a little suspension of disbelief between friends?

“This gold looks bloody and singed. But hey, it still spends like gold!”

I find this to be an… interesting design decision. From a farther-off perspective, I can’t help but see this as a nod to the persistent-development mechanics that other roguelike games have started incorporating (looking at you, Rogue Legacy). This idea is further supported by the fact that you have to unlock different shop items by getting achievements. Beat the Kobold Archmage to be able to buy potions of resist fire, recharge a spent magic staff to be able to buy scrolls of magic recharge. That sort of thing. Achievements always unlock items and sometimes unlock new classes, so they provide a neat driver for replayability, if you’re into that sort of thing.

From a closer-up perspective, it’s interesting to trace what this decision says about Unexplored‘s gameplay focus. I think this tells us that the shop can’t be important for final success in any Unexplored dungeon: Since it’s always possible that you mess up and start a run with no gold, it’d be mean-spirited if that particular run was immediately doomed to be nothing but a gold-farming expedition, right? But then, it might be. I’ve never actually beaten the game. Maybe you are supposed to see every character that wasn’t born rich as nothing more than a piggy bank on legs for the later generation. That’d be some surprising social commentary, if nothing else.

(For real, though, I’m pretty sure it’s the first one. I’ve achieved full inventories and rich gold purses with characters who started with nothing but the default loadout.)

It is *surprisingly easy* to load your inventory full of garbage. Most of it doesn’t even help, anywhere.

Six-or-so paragraphs in, and all I’ve talked about is how Rogue-like the character creation is. That might be some sort of record, I don’t know.

Past the starting gate, in the moment-to-moment gameplay, Unexplored is on the surface pretty much what you’d expect. A cavalcade of doors to open, rooms and hallways to explore, items to loot, and monsters to fight. Being a real-time makes it feel different from its forebears, but also… not. The same feelings permeate: Most play is still a matter of carefully advancing through unfamiliar terrain, looking out for monsters and traps, and always having some way out in the back of your mind. Or, if you don’t, weighing whether or not you should drink that unfamiliar potion (and risk catching on fire) or throw it at the enemy (and risk wasting a life potion to no effect).

The real-time movement has the biggest influence combat-wise, to nobody’s surprise. Combat is still mostly about position and choosing your attacks and defenses, but it’s much less ‘RPG battle’ and much more Joust and Ys. Most enemies can damage you by running into you, and humanoid enemies in particular play according to the same rules you do. Which means that combat is an intricate dance of ‘when do I attack’, ‘where do I move’, ‘should I try to run away or should I try to engage’. Familiar tactical considerations for any game; that enemies now don’t stop moving while you think changes things a little bit, but then you can still pause the game at any time to think.

I don’t want to sell the combat short with this description. It’s actually really interesting. For starters, your character can hold two items in their left and right hands, which can (under normal circumstances) be switched at will. I figured at first that the different weapons would mostly just have different numbers and types, but it turns out that’s entirely wrong. Short swords and spears, for instance, you stab with those. You can activate them for a dash and a big hit, but they also have a defensive property: If you just hold them out, enemies can run into them, taking damage as they do. But long and great swords, and axes and maces, those you keep to your side, winding up for big swings. They’re strong, and they tend to strike areas, but apart from a direct attack they’re that much dead iron in your hands. Using these weapons places a much higher value on clever positioning and mobility… or on the use of shields, which use can raise or lower to block attacks from different angles. And then there are the ranged weapons, like daggers and throwing axes (easy to aim and use, have melee potential, but you have to pick them before enemies do, which they will) and bows, crossbows, and guns (which are really nice as long as you have ammo).

And all of that is still only fighting with equipment. Throwing items in the mix, such as potions and scrolls and magical staves, changes the entire landscape. And speaking of landscape, Unexplored is really good at making the actual environment a living, tactical factor. You’ve already seen what happens when fire and shrubbery mix: This is something that forces you to think on your feet when walking those places, but it can also be used aggressively, pretty much how you’d expect. Some levels are dotted with vents that expel poisonous gasses, also flammable. Enemies can activate these effects too. Cliffs and lava pools are impassable obstacles, unless you have the right magic for getting past them, in which case they suddenly because valuable tactical assets… just as long as you remember to get out before the potion does. And you can always swim in water, just as long as you mind the murder-fish. And the air.

Pictured here: Me holding off a bunch of yeti-like creatures because they don’t understand how chasms work. Things would go a lot different if they understood that charged spears can cross that gap. Or if they started throwing their freezing potions. Or if they’d *walk around*.

In my personal experience, combat is… something to be avoided. Not because it isn’t fun, because in many ways it is, but because there’s no such thing as a safe battle. Okay, sure, you can probably kill a single rat or bat without too much hassle. Probably. But what about a swarm of poison rats? Or those big bats that periodically catch on fire? Or the acid cubes, that split into multiplies? Or the slow-moving worms with the terrible mandibles? Or the gargoyles, that hide as statues until you get close and then… And even that’s only covering the normal fights. At any time, you can run into special boss monsters: The Ant Queen, the Golden Beetle, the Kobold Archmage, the dreaded Cyclops. Point is: In almost every battle, you stand to lose more than you win. It’s neat to loot special weapons off of enemies, I’ll give you that. But for the most part, all that combat gets you is some fresh cuts and a dent in your shield. There’s no ‘experience’ in Unexplored, and most gold and most actually cool, magic items come from puzzles, secrets, and chests. Combat is just what you do to survive in-between those parts.

I could try to engage this gargoyle. I could probably sneak attack it if I got close, which multiplies damage, then sneak off before it sees me to re-hide. I could try… but for what gain? A medium shield and a speak I each already have?

Luckily, Unexplored‘s dungeons are much more than just combat delivery engines. I was actually pleasantly surprised by this, so much had I expected it to be just that. But Unexplored is chock full of smaller and larger puzzles, and navigating those is as much a part of surviving and thriving in this game as the combat is.

I want to stress real quick here that when I say ‘Unexplored‘s puzzles’, I mean puzzles. Some of it is nothing more than ‘find the switch to open the door’, or ‘find the enemy that holds the key’, but that level of non-puzzle is in the minority. And, actually, the game is so acutely aware of how non-interesting these puzzles are that it often offers several ways around any problem. You can find the key to this locked door, or you can use a lockpick. Maybe add a flask of oil, if you want to be sure. You can find the lever for this door, or you can get a shovel and dig around. Or find a scroll of teleportation and hope that you’re lucky. Or pray to one of the gods, and hope they open the door for you. If I had to pick one thing in Unexplored that surprised me the most, it’s the Divinity: Original Sin-level of freedom this game gives the player to hammer their square peg solutions into the intended round holes.

But then there are also puzzles. Think of things like: On Floor 5, you find four animal statues. A fox, an owl, a monkey, and a tiger. The game tells you they’re worth something if you can get them out of the dungeon. But then you remember that, on Floor 3, there was this strange room with the locked door and the four pedestals. Maybe there’s some connection there?… And hey, look, there’s a book on the ground! It tells you that, ‘to find the pedestal that the right key goes onto, blanket the room in acid fog’. But now you still don’t know what the ‘right key’ is…

Slowly, the pieces fall into place.

The books deserve a special mention. There’s generally tons of them around the place, and they’re always related to the floors you’re traversing, the puzzles you’re facing, the enemies you have to defeat, or sometimes just the game itself. Did you know you can craft a fire resistant armor by combining a standard leather with the carapace of an ant queen? I do, now.

This book tells me two things: One, the husk of the Golden Beetle is a good offering to the goddess Sophie. And two, there’s going to be a Golden Beetle in this dungeon.

The books and the potions also demonstrate in a very interesting way just how much Unexplored is procedurally generated. I’ve seen the Ant Queen warning/recipe like three times already. But that’s not a criticism: Unexplored shows that even with these sorts of crafted-seeming experiences, it’s still possible to do procedural generation right. Almost every Unexplored dungeon I ran through felt like it could have been hand-crafted by gameplay designers… some kinder and more invested in the player’s fun and survival by others. If the combat makes the moment-to-moment gameplay fun, and the puzzles and cognitive challenges keep the player invested beyond killing every monster, then things like the books organically bring the dungeon — your dungeon alive, giving each place its own mood and its own story to tell. It’s impressive that I still remember a few of the places I ran. Like the triple-exit on triple-exit dungeon, where I burned my entire stash of fire resist potions just to find the right way down. Or the first dungeon, where I fell for a trap I didn’t knew existed and them plummeted to watery death. That felt so planned! Maybe it was; maybe those two floors are always connected that way. Maybe it wasn’t. But isn’t it impressive either way that I can’t tell?

Another thing I can’t quite tell, and this is a little less impressive, is how a great deal of this game works. Unexplored takes after its predecessors not only in the good ways, but also in the way where it won’t explain a ton of things. Some examples: What exactly does a potion of ‘Drain Magic’ do? To what degree do different stats influence success rates on different activities? What items can I sacrifice to what gods, and what does their increasing favour actually do? If I pray to the gods in front of a locked door, is there some way of influencing if standing in the magic prayer circle opens the door, or teleports me past the wall?

Of course, during moments when I’m enjoying Unexplored, I’ll feel like all this is a part of the experience. Isn’t it cool that there’s so much weird uncertainty in this game? I’ve seen secret rooms in maps with not even an idea of how to get there. I’ve seen recipes for weird potions and cool magic items. I’ve equipped rings of sneaking and armors of blending and a cursed scimitar that set everything around me on fire with every tenth swing, which is an incredibly rad curse. I’ve bored through the ground to avoid ancient liches, set forests on fire to kill the hulking rat creatures walking inside, and accidentally drank acid because I hoped it’d be a healing potion instead.

I later ‘broke the curse’, which turned this weapon into a normal-ass magic scimitar. It was the worst choice I ever made.

When you get right down to it, you’ll probably enjoy Unexplored if you enjoy these sorts of stories. I don’t know if I’d recommend it on the strength of its combat, and the degree of exploration and world building are alright. But for sheer ‘wow, I can’t believe that thing just happened, it’s got most other games I’ve played this Summer beat.

Final thoughts

I’ve been trying to decide if I’m interested in booting up Unexplored again, after finishing this review. That’s usually a good benchmark of game quality. And… it’s complicated. On the one hand, I increasingly felt near the end of the week that ‘I’d seen most of it’. I’ve seen the normal weapons, and a lot of the tile sets, and even the more common puzzles and environmental set pieces. The principal thing that still had me playing was trying to unlock the different classes, and since that’s based on achievements, it started getting annoying: I still don’t have the Warrior class, since I’ve never found a magic sword to identify through killing fast enough. If you play the game for those reasons, for delineated achievement and trying to get as far as you can, it can start getting frustrating. This holds for pretty much every game, and it holds for Unexplored.

All the same, writing this review had me reminisce about the cool experiences this game can provide. The unexpected set pieces, the mini stories, the tight scrapes won by finding just the right potion or item. I think maybe Unexplored works better as a longer-term game: A podcast game, maybe, or something that you play every other few days. It’s definitely got experiences to spare, if that’s your sort of thing. And I don’t doubt there’ll be a mastery effect if you play for more than a week and a half. In my case, my dungeon runs tend to end explosively on the 6th or 7th floor, when my healing potions run out and my rations dry up and suddenly a hit I barely registered means a spinning sad-trombone death. But who knows. Maybe if I keep playing, I’ll eventually find that amulet. And maybe… so will you?

Unexplored runs you ten Steam bucks. That’s including some free DLC content, and the game’s been in a constant state of updating ever since I played. So if you’re worried that Ludomotion isn’t going to keep making this game bigger, better, and more stable as time goes by — evidence is against you.

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Jarenth will never find the amulet. It just won’t happen. Taunt him with your own prowess on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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