Games are worlds in miniature, each an exploration of a series of rulesets and parameters laid out in sometimes familiar and novel ways, and I look forward to new combinations of aesthetics and mechanics as experimental as they are fun to figure out. But for the dozen things it does very right, one of Unsighted's central mechanics ends up so grating as to drain the life from an otherwise great game.
Set in a future where automatons have inherited the broken world their human creators passed on to them, Unsighted reads like a preamble to an apocalypse. While humanity has mostly faded from this world, in part due to their own negligence and also because of their role in a war waged on automatons, there are pockets of life still in what they left behind. But even the automatons, brought to life by a substance named anima which came to the humans in a crystal meteor years ago, are facing extinction. That crystal is now being withheld by an unknown force. Their anima running low, it becomes your charge as Alma, an automaton built for salvation, to craft a weapon that will potentially put an end to their struggle in a world that’s rapidly collapsing in on them.
The danger the characters of this world face is the danger to go “unsighted.” Once their anima expires, all automatons become a monstrous version of themselves that attacks others. After so many conflicts, an automaton's ultimate fear is to run out of time to live their own lives. Arcadia, where the game takes place, is not just a city filled with “unsighted,” it’s a place haunted by the automatons’ colleagues, allies and friends, as well as their dreams of a life beyond this cruel cycle.
You, as Alma, are reawakened into this mysterious city, and are quickly taken in by a group who says they know you from a life you have trouble remembering.. That's the main thrust of Unsighted, but a secondary—and more tragic—story is also unfolding around you. The threat of going “unsighted” isn’t just a narrative premise, it’s a fully fleshed out feature.
Everyone you meet has a timer by their name. Some have hundreds of hours that could seemingly never vanish in the time it takes you to complete the game, others have precious few hours remaining that will almost literally pass in the blink of an eye.. Wrapped up in this system is a kind of "social link"system most closely akin to Stardew Valley, where characters have relationship hearts you can earn more of by extending their time with an incredibly rare resource called Meteor Dust. In return for giving characters Meteor Dust, they also receive another 24 hours to live and you gain further standing with them. However: Meteor Dust will also extend your own time, which is also ticking down in real-time, and can be exchanged with NPCs for tiny advantages, like more healing syringes.
How you dole out Meteor Dust you find becomes a rigorous balancing act; they can bear out rewards big, like new equipment, and small, like discounts with merchants. all the while, you're weighing them all against your own wants and needs, as your character is only as good as she is useful to the people around her and vice versa. What emerges from this system is a vicious hierarchy where characters who are main players in the story are loudly sign-posted as such, with unsighted hour counts that dwarf characters the game’s own features deem expendable.
This sets in motion a dismal chain of events, because Unsighted can be an unusually cruel game.
Every character you meet will join a list of contacts that notifies you as they die. For a few hours, I managed to just scrape by and keep most of who I’d met alive, but soon enough, the dam burst. The first to go was Ana, a shopkeeper who had greeted me with so much kindness when I rejoined Gear Village, the makeshift haven the automatons erected after the war. Visiting her shop when the hours were up, only to see the clear signs of distress before she descended into rampancy carried a sting. Master Cecilia, who offered to train me, went unsighted too. So did the smith Olga’s assistant, who upgraded my weapons, and Cleo, a homely shark-like automaton whose only desire in the world was to peacefully fish till the end of their days.
Eventually, the cruelty went too far when my companion Iris, a tiny fairy bot who wants to find the sister she lost in the war, was on her last legs. I'd had enough.
Till then, I had met the game on its terms—hacking, slashing and puzzling my way through its dungeons and bosses. Clearly taking inspiration from older Zelda titles, but most obviously the Zelda-inspired indie darling Hyper Light Drifter, the game is enjoyable to play. Combat is tight and impactful, focused on timed parries and trading blows with foes and managing a stamina bar in brief skirmishes. Unsighted touts a set of familiar, but fleshed out, systems.
“Unsighted can be an unusually cruel game.”
In combat, you can use a mixture of close-quarters (like swords and axes) and long-range (blasters, grenade launchers, freeze guns, etc.) weapons and spec yourself out with a chip system that provides long term buffs. A “cog” system allows you to provide temporary buffs, like an increase to defense or the ability to automatically revive after falling in a fight. These can stack for as many cog slots as you have. As you fight, you collect materials to use at workbenches to craft weapons and cogs, and money can be spent at shops or on upgrading your chip capacity. You’ll hit switches that summon or dissolve illusions or slide blocks around on icy platforms, and unlock familiar traversal abilities—do you like hookshots and dashes?—to explore its Metroidvania-like map. I cannot stress enough how much is jam-packed into this game, and how much of it works.
But that experience just also suffered by the assurance I was going to lose so many characters to this ceaselessly cold and indifferent world.
I wanted to see payoffs to the long term side stories playing out in Unsighted, but it wouldn’t let me. You can work to reunite Iris with her sister—or she can die before you ever make it there. I was overwhelmed by the continuous notifications that everything around me was dying. I'd be deep in one of the relatively short dungeons, get stuck on a puzzle for a few more minutes,and feel terrible because I knew time was whittling down for someone somewhere.
I appreciated the tension at first, but quickly, it began to feel more like a mean-spirited taunt.. Engaging on the game’s terms was impacting my ability to enjoy Unsighted at all. No matter how many wins I accrued, I was still losing.
So I wrested control from it.
In games these days, there is a welcomed and growing trend of assist modes. In Unsighted, it’s called Explorer Mode, and I highly encourage you to get a feel for the game's systems and see if they are for you before toggling it on. You can also activate invincibility, increased stamina or more forgiving combat, but the most immediate and impactful benefit is that it slows the passage of time down and extends every character's time left. It even brought back characters who had died in my file.
I felt bad working against the game and toggling it, but the truth is that the characters I met once or twice dropping like flies simply because I was trying to progress through the game simply drained on me. The more consequences the game dropped beyond my control, the worse I felt about continuing. It’s baffling what a difference this mode made and how much more enjoyable I found the game once I excised the time mechanic from it. I can imagine a narrative that more explicitly weaved this feature in and hit with a greater impact than the death march I was on, and firmly believe that this was the creator’s intent. For that I can’t fault the developers, but I can appreciate the checks in place that defang it and open up the game to more folks, including me.
It’s a shame then that it took me until just about the end of my time with Unsighted—roughly 6 hours—to use Explorer Mode, because otherwise, I felt like I could’ve let myself sink into the game.
Pixel art has come such a long way since even the early indie game renaissance and Unsighted is yet another achievement in that field. It’s story, while not a page-turner, offers characters you want to root for. Combat is fun and occasionally challenging, and while the boss fights are mostly straightforward, they’re a visual and mechanical joy. Yet at the same time, a not-so-invisible force punished me anytime I sat there to appreciate it.
I’m glad that I got to see both sides of Unsighted. What a game is and what you get out of it can just as often be in alignment as they can be at odds, and so I’m just grateful for the chance to have played in its world by its rules and also my own.