The Unliving | Beta Review

Developer: RocketBrush Studio Ltd. | Publisher: Team17 Digital Ltd.

The Unliving is a dynamic rogue-lite action RPG with strategic elements. Raise the undead, use numerous spells, and explore a mystical world, all realized with darkly extravagant pixel-art.

Recently, I was lucky enough to acquire a beta copy of a game that I really wanted to play. The concept of The Unliving is strong and simple, hyper-focusing on the single fantasy archetype that other people like myself are dying to play: the necromancer. From the tabletop to ARPG games, there are many titles that explore the archetype, but few that make playing a necromancer and controlling their minions focused and direct.

Art Presentation: Delicious the Riches, they Glisten Ahead

The Unliving has a beautiful art style. The color palette, character designs, pixelated sprites, and digital art all work together wondrously. The sea of greens and purples give the feeling of something unnatural and undead while also complementing the nighttime shades of the environment. It’s all tied together well with little details, like the ornate bone-motif armor of the main character necromancer. Speaking of the necromancer, I dig the character design — he kinda has the look of one of the ghoul members of the band Ghost B.C. You can clearly see it.

“Yo! Can you play Square Hammer?”

On the opposite side, you have the design of the human enemies. They also fit seamlessly, contrasting with the nighttime color palette without detracting from the game’s overall look and feel. They’re easy to identify, but not distracting. I gotta give props to the developers and their artists who brought to life a fantastic design language that is vivid and gloomy; readable and functional.

One critique though: the UI needs a bit of tinkering since there are elements in the HUD that are a bit bland, giving some options a sort of “greyed-out” appearance. Slight adjustments to the hue of certain icons can fix this.

Sound: Get Out There and Shred!

It’s a zombie footloose!

The sound design of the current build is gothic and promising, but nothing particularly noteworthy. While there are quality sound effects and responses, I found myself wanting a few more grunts and growls on certain minions that you control. I’ll give it a pass since it’s still in the beta phase. Additionally, the game could benefit from sound effects for when skills come off of cooldown.

Mechanics: When I’m Necromacin’, Everyone’s Dancin’

The game is sort of like a Twin-Stick Shooter mixed with an ARPG, making it mechanically unique. The keyboard controls your movement with the WASD keys and your skills with the QERF keys. You also have a dodge button (spacebar) that allows you to evade projectiles in a satisfying way. The R key also functions as your interact button, opening chests, initiating resurrections, and interacting with the shop.

Onwards my minions! We shall prevail!

Your mouse is used to aim around you. Left click fires your primary spell to damage enemies and barricades and right click instructs movement for your horde. The middle mouse tells the horde to hold position. The gist of the game is to your make and gather your horde, guide it, and Zerg rush it (most of the time), from point A to B. It’s a unique and enjoyable experience.

Some aspects were a little less intuitive until I started experimenting. For instance, I discovered that you can hurl nearby minions and also detonate them upon your enemies. It’s a bit tricky to get the timing right, but it’s very fun.

One mechanical limitation is the fact that the game does not give you any formation commands and organizing commands for your undead army. There’s no way to command your fighters and brutes to take the front and protect your archers in the back. I can forgive this since it is a beta, but hopefully the developers have some solution to this problem. It’s pretty important to have army organization in a game where you’re organizing an army.

Time to Roll the Dice

My experience of The Unliving‘s rogue-lite elements for the most part was in choosing skills. After reaching a certain point of the beta level, you can exchange your gold for some power and also  buy health and mana. I do have concerns about the rogue-like elements raised from information in a developer interview.

My big concern is that the hyper-randomization of roguelikes could create fatigue and frustration in a game that already has a solid core gameplay experience. Having multiple trial-and-error runs might diminish The Unliving‘s stronger aspects.

Gameplay: Let’s make some Evil.

The beta starts you off nice and slow. You’ve got a couple of skeletons just to make sure you get your bearings and learn the controls. Although you might think the only strategy is snowball and steamroll, there are several points in the game that you need to stop and think rather than bull-rushing it.

“All right boys, y’all need to bull rush the villagers and stab them with your pitchforks and I’ll go raid their fridge”

These points are fortifications that often stop you from becoming a undead Zerg rush extravaganza, denying your horde. There are many ways you can tackle the problem. You can still attempt to bull rush and destroy the barricades, but it will diminish your horde population (risky). You may choose to park your horde for a moment and snipe out an opening, then funnel your horde in pathway (time consuming, but effective).

Another is a hybrid that I call Zombie Football: bull-rushing the barricade and chucking the zombies, then sacrificing them once they’re behind the defenses. Each zombie creates a different kind of effect when sacrificed in this way:

  • normal zombies = explosion
  • ranged zombies = spectral arrows that target enemies
  • zombie dogs = stun, but minimal damage
  • zombie brutes = black hole bombs

The Unliving often rewards risky plays like these. You also need to take your horde health into consideration. A foolish Zerg rush or a bad game of Zombie Football could not only deal minimal damage, but it could also leave you army-less.

The gameplay can be fast or it can be slow and calculated depending how you approach the problem. If I can describe this whole experience as feeling like playing a Twin-Stick Shooter on top of a mono black zombie deck from Magic: The Gathering (since you have to move and manage your horde from danger and making decisive sacrifice plays like mono black zombie deck in Magic). It’s captivating and has great replay value. The Unliving hooked me with this gameplay and I love it.

Conclusion

As someone who enjoys playing ARPGs and a necromancer player in Grim Dawn, I’m fully sold on The Unliving and putting it on my wishlist. The focus on the necromancer playstyle is a fantastic direction for a game that also throws truly unique gameplay elements into the mix.

While I’ve already mentioned my concerns with rogue-lite elements, my issues are with the nature of the beast when it comes to such a genre. Hopefully my concerns are misplaced on this, since I like the concept and the visuals and especially the gameplay. This might be the first rogue-like game that I own when it comes to release. In conclusion, this is a game worth checking out and also worth putting on a wishlist. If it sounds interesting to you, take a look at The Unliving on Steam.

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