To put it in simple words: Metroidvanias are my jam.
Some of my all-time favorites in modern gaming include the likes of Hollow Knight, Rogue Legacy (with a sequel on the way!), and the SteamWorld Dig series. Growing up, I even got to experience the very game that helped give life to the genre as we know it — Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
I got to play a plethora of equally excellent puzzle games in my lifetime, but the ones that always stood out most to me are Number None's one-of-a-kind Braid, Airtight Games' criminally underrated Quantum Conundrum, and Valve's magnum opus puzzler, Portal.
I feel compelled to mention these games because they all have one thing in common between them: innovative mechanics. This, to me, separates the "okay" puzzlers from the absolute brain-ticklers gamers come back to again and again, all in the hopes of finding the solution to that one tricky puzzle they couldn't quite solve.
Even after spending a mere 30 minutes with its prologue, I could tell Unbound: Worlds Apart by Alien Pixel Studios had potential to spare, and with it, plenty of imaginative ways to spice up the modern puzzle platforming formula. Its faithful inspirations oozed from its very seams with every intentional mechanic, platform to leap, and puzzle the player is expected to navigate.
A World Torn Asunder... But By What?
As soon as I started my new game, I found myself immediately in control of the game's main character, Soli, a tiny, red-robed mage with the ability to conjure portals (and a cute little flame lit on his head). I was placed smack-dab in the middle of a beautiful, verdant field among a sea of elevated honeycomb-like huts that faded ever-so smoothly into the background.
Walking to the right of the screen revealed more of these huts, and along the way, I was faced with a series of jumps — a light exercise likely meant to test the game's simple yet smooth controls. Soon after, I ran into a group of villagers that, frankly, kind of just looked like bigger, older versions of Soli, who is probably a sorcerer's apprentice at best.
The elder in green robes gave me the task of finding my brother before "The Ceremony" starts, so I set off to the village's walls, flip a lever to lower the gate and head out into the nearby forest to look for my lost kin.
Quick tangent: Unbound: Worlds Apart's visual designers truly nailed the player's sense of perspective in this game; I was walking toward the village gate that had a really long wall around it, and the wall actually turned inward as I was passing by, just like it would in real life! It's a rather minor thing, but wow, I absolutely love it when video games go the extra mile to deliver that additional bit of detail to help immerse the player into their creative worlds.
Before I knew it, a set of intricately detailed cutscenes play, depicting the game's inciting incident that serve as the catalyst for Soli's journey — the catastrophe.
As he is away searching for his brother, a portal to another world opens up in the center of Soli's village, which releases a legion of wicked creatures from another realm that go on to decimate our protagonist's home and all the people in it.
From this point on, it becomes clear that Soli must find a way to avenge his people as well as purge his world of this newfound evil.
Thinking With Portals
After witnessing the destruction of his village, Soli escapes into a nearby burning forest, where he comes across a dying member of his clan, who emphasizes the portal's malevolence, saying "it's pure evil!" He then dies, leaving Soli to continue on, where he is forced to pass through an immense portal that brings forth a gargantuan, spider-like creature that drives its towering legs into the ground with each step. Before it is able to catch him, Soli then falls into a pit. In the pit, Soli is presented with a large, runic stone that gives the player the ability to toy around with the game's most prevalent game mechanic: portals.
Portals are the game's main mode of solving platform-based puzzles, and once activated, will create a bubble to the other world. The portal itself seems to lead into an alternate reality, where certain objects and enemies in Soli's world tend to disappear or do different things instead.
For example, Soli's first roadblock is, well, an actual roadblock in the form of a big rock that prevents him from moving on to the next area. As the player, you have to activate the portal, which opens around Soli, in order to reveal the other world where there is no rock separating you and the area that lies ahead.
If you will, take a closer look at the environment between the inside and the outside of the portal in the pictures above.
They are completely different!
Soli's world — the outside of the portal — looks peaceful, even inviting for an in-game cave. However, the other world by comparison is more akin to that of the Underworld: pouring over with equally dark and bright shades of red and orange tones, and chockful of unspoken, Lovecraftian horrors just waiting for you on the other side.
And that's just it.
As soon as portals are thrown into the mix, Unbound: Worlds Apart does an outstanding job of convincing you that the other world is just the other side of the same coin the two worlds share. Now, while the game's story did not directly support my theory, it also did not tell me otherwise. For that, I greatly appreciate how Unbound: Worlds Apart gives the player the creative freedom to ponder these theories, even if it turns out the game has a different direction for its story in mind for the future.
Frankly, this is how a good demo should be.
What's Up With This World?
Considering the rest of the demo only features more of what I described above, I will allow our curious readers to experience the rest of it for themselves, as Unbound: Worlds Apart's prologue is an absolute treat to play, especially since it is so short and sweet!
However, while I do have a high appreciation for its graphical quality, mechanics and attention-to-detail, I cannot dismiss how little actual story was shared in this demo.
Characters you get to speak to are far and few between, and those we do get to speak to are nameless statuettes that, while detailed-looking, hardly ever say anything of real interest or value when it comes to the game's overarching story. Dialogue only served as a way to progress to the next area or puzzle.
I had almost no idea what the story was about or what threat we were even expected to thwart for most of the demo, until the end, of course. And even then, the antagonist is nothing more than a name because the player never gets to see or learn more about them. Because of this, I found myself wanting to just continue solving puzzles without worrying about the story.
However, during Indie Story Games' most recent AMA in our community Discord server, we were told they are working on the narrative as we speak, and with the help of an experienced narrative writer, Dave Cook, on their team, there is much more story to look forward to in the near future! The game will be complete with cutscenes and lore as you unlock them through puzzles and exploration. And if you veer off the main path and to more challenging puzzles or routes less travelled, there'll be even more to learn about the characters, locations, and history of the universe of Unbound.
After having a blast playing as my new favorite fiery hero, I was truly desperate to get to know the rest of Unbound's characters and how they fit into Soli's adventure.
Therefore, it's amazing news to hear that the narrative aspect is being elaborated upon beyond the scope of the demo. With that in mind, and what I've experienced from the gameplay alone, I am as excited as ever to delve into the magical worlds of Unbound: Worlds Apart with a red-hot fire in my belly, as well as one on the top of my new favorite pint-size mage's little red hood!
The demo for Unbound: Worlds Apart is available on Steam, for the low-low price of free! Check it out, and be amazed by the sheer level of quality, thought, and pure fun in this upcoming indie title!