RPGs are often so deliberately expansive, boasting of twenty hour main quests and thirty more for the incidental side quests, spread across vast fantasy kingdoms, or across the length and breadth of the Milky Way. But do they need to be? This is the question asked by Unrest, a low-key RPG set in and around the slums of a decaying city state in a fictionalised ancient India across eight chapters chronicling the events around a revolt.
It’s a small game, both in terms of the linear length of the plot and in terms of the scale of the story. You’re dropped into the role of a character, and a particular area of the environment and sent to go about a task, whether that be meeting the man that you’ve been arranged to marry, or preparing to put down a riot.
It’s also a game focused almost entirely around conversation.The action is contained within dialogue, as are most of the major decisions. There might be moments of combat, but even that is driven by the same dialogue system of the conversation. It’s where you decide the fates of your characters, and of the people around you. However, these are more than simple dialogue trees, but rather something closer to Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s persuasion battles (albeit without much in the way of successful persuasion). Every character with whom you share any more than a couple of lines has three values – fear, respect and friendship – and many of your responses will change one of these values positively or negatively. It’s an interesting system, and one that very succinctly gets the disposition of character across to the player in an instant, and the changes themselves grant characters more depth than they might otherwise have.
However, it’s often hard to see what effect these changes have on the plot as a whole, beyond the obvious effects of major decisions – more often than not it feels like these changes in values and attempts to influence others are too small to really matter in the grand scheme of things. That could be a criticism in other RPGs focused on saving the world, or the entire galaxy, and making monumental decisions along the way. It’s part of the reason why Dragon Age 2 remains a baffling target of hate three years after release. We don’t like our heroes to be disempowered, or for our decisions to simply form part of a wider tapestries.
But there aren’t any heroes here, no convenient villains and no quest to save much beyond families and loved ones. In each of the eight chapters you control a different character, from different sides of the brewing conflict. One moment you’re playing the part of a middle-aged priest, attempting to provide for your family, and in the next you’re a mercenary captain, attempting to stave off an uprising. In each case, you spend just enough time with the character to get a measure of their situation, and just enough time to shape a part of their character. You steer your charge through one major event, a vignette with just enough depth to make you think about the life of each character before you’re catapulted onto the next perspective. These sudden shifts in perspective force the player to take a long hard look at the situation. An opinion I’d formed of one character, set up as an antagonist in one of the earlier chapters, was challenged after playing the part of one of his minions in a later chapter. Even the most objectively disagreeable of characters are more governed by insecurity and duty, rather than malice, or any grand plan beyond survival.
That’s not to say that all choices in Unrest are really just fantasies of disempowerment. You do make major decisions, and they often have repercussions for everyone in the city, especially as the plot reaches its climax. While much of the violence occurs through actions you take, some elements, even after a couple of playthroughs, seem to be inevitable.
It’d be easy to criticise Unrest for its brevity – a playthrough will only last you for a couple of hours, and even less if you speed through. Certainly, if you’re looking for something that sprawls then you’ll be irritated by its shortness and sharpness. However, focusing on length misses the point slightly, as Unrest is a game which gives up more and more of itself on subsequent playthroughs. There’s a slight air of Groundhog Day or Source Code to it as you play through and try to fix, or at least vary, the problems all of the characters face.
There are certainly some issues, however. At the minor end of things there are a few graphical anomalies at the time of playing, including a couple of interiors that looked as though they were hovering above the rest of the world, all of which makes Unrest feel fairly rough around the edges. There’s a sense that Unrest is a step in the right direction, rather than a shining example of a new approach to RPGs. Whilst the writing is generally very good, the commitment to keeping the scope of the plot on the ordinary and the everyday does mean that some scenes towards the end of the game don’t feel as urgent as they could be, and sometimes verge on the flat. There’s a sense that it isn’t quite all it could be.
But, then again, Unrest is, as a whole, distinctly ordinary, and for once that’s about the highest compliment that I could give to it, and given how rare that is it’s worth looking beyond the brevity or the lack of urgency. There’s no attempt to resolve any grand conflicts, or to provide the player with much in the way of satisfactory conclusions – and that’s okay. Unrest focuses on characters and situations normally not seen in RPGs, whose struggles are more relatable, more understandable and perhaps more interesting than helping buff men punch dragons.
The Verdict – Head Shot
Platforms Available – PC, MAC, Linux
Platform Reviewed – PC
For more on our scoring policy, please read this post. Review copy supplied by PR.