Unmaze review: Our Android/iOS game of the month for June
Unmaze is our first ever game of the month review, where we intend to perform a series of video game reviews for both Android and iOS platforms on a monthly basis. Is this interactive novel published by Arte, which revisits the myth of the Minotaur and plays a lot with light and shadow elements in an interesting manner, worth the $ asking price?
Before kicking off the review, I'd like to point out that you can download Unmaze for free from the Google Play Store or the Apple App Store and play the entire first chapter (which consists of 1 hour of gameplay time). After that, you'll have to upgrade to the paid version in order to continue. The game does not contain any in-app purchases or ads.
My brief opinion about Unmaze
Unmaze is both an adventure game and an interactive graphic novel by Nicolas Pelloille-Oudart and Frédéric Jamain, developed by Ubian and HiverProd studios and published by Arte. The story was written by Thomas Cadène and illustrated by Florent Fortin.
The game itself was inspired by the myth of the Minotaur, where you play the role of Ariadne and must guide her boyfriend Theseus as well as his brother Asterion through a parallel and labyrinthine world. This sort of purgatory experience is home to a fallen civilization of Titans, antropomorphic monsters who practice macabre rites in the midst of extremely complex architecture.
The main attraction of the game is the very clever use of light and shadows in real life, which would rely on your smartphone's light sensor. This will definitely affect as well as spice up the gameplay. We alternate between very linear exploration phases in an isometric 3D universe that uses a very marked graphic style as well as dialogue phases that range from geeky references to Star Wars to the most serious of moral dilemmas.
While I found the plot a bit too immature for my liking, not to mention the rhythm of the dialogues that are boring at times, I loved the visual universe of Unmaze as well as the twist in the gameplay that relies on the use of the smartphone's light sensor - it is brilliant as it is original. This is not a new idea though, as the Game Boy Advance's 2003 title, Boktai:The Sun Is In Your Hand, comes with a photometric light sensor that will charge the game's solar weapons.
This is a mobile game that fully deserves the $3.99 price tag on the Play Store or the App Store.
Story (spoiler-free): Between teen drama and horror thriller
In Unmaze, which is literally translated "de-labyrinther", you play the role of Ariadne and must help Theseus, your boyfriend, and Asterion, your brother, to escape from the Labyrinth in which they seem to be stuck.
The two men in Ariadne's life, while they seem to be in the same world, are not in the same phase in life. Theseus, a young man in the very prime of life, handsome, self-confident, and hails from a very bourgeois family, is stuck on the bright side of the labyrinth. Asterion, an introverted and jealous teenager who is having trouble coming to terms with childhood trauma, is stuck on the dark side.
Everyone is trapped in the labyrinth for a reason: for a sin they committed, so it's up to you to find out what they're hiding from you in order to shed light on the tragic events that connect all of you.
The scenario is clearly oriented towards a younger audience, with a plot that is ultimately quite teenage-centric with emphasis on unhappiness, self-esteem, depression, lovers' quarrels, or a toxic relationship with one's parents. But it also touches on more serious themes such as murder, blood rituals, and the value of a soul.
Without wishing to be judgemental, I sometimes gritted my teeth as I listened to Theseus complain about the golden prison in which he grew up, 'torturing' our dear Ariadne with his 'troubles'. Ariadne can empathize with the rich kid who remains disturbed because he felt he was mistreated by his daddy, which is a theme that we normally find in many teen movies or series.
But the developers have also understood their audience without going overboard with 'teensploitation'. For example, there are geeky references to Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Star Wars slipped in while sounding credible and in a non-annoying manner.
The entire plot of the game revolves around the balance that Ariadne tries to maintain between Theseus and Asterion, between the light side and the dark side. They both seem to be gradually absorbed by the labyrinth and it's up to you to keep them on the right path so that they do not go astray. But the more you help one, the more the other gets lost and vice versa.
It all sounds good, except that it sometimes feels as though there's a big gap between the entire stake of the story, i.e. the life or potential death of Theseus and/or Asterion, and the sometimes too childish and immature reactions from the protagonists. This feeling was reinforced by the multiple choice answers that were submitted to Ariadne which will affect the outcome of the story.
We then find ourselves in game universes such as Fallout, The Witcher, or any other RPG to be able to give a "bad" or "wrong" answer, an answer that does not fit in with the idea that we have of Ariadne. While trying to skip a dialogue, I found myself advising Asterion to pick up the hand that a Titan had just sliced off and wave it at monsters at the first signs of trouble.
Anyway, I wouldn't say that the writing is cumbersome. On the contrary, I find that for the intended audience, the dialogue is completely relatable. The stakes of the story as well as the liabilities that each character possesses, connect them together in an effective manner, with just the right amount of seriousness. But it's a little too "Riverdale" at times for my taste.
Gameplay: A clever twist but at a flat pace
In Unmaze, Ariadne is just an observer as you play her. You see Theseus and Asterion in the third person through a crystal that allows you to guide them through the labyrinth. This labyrinth is shown in the form of a 3D isometric map.
To move, simply tap the location of your choice along the maze, your character will advance by himself to the designated point. This ultra simplistic point-and-click mechanic is however enriched by the alternating of light and dark phases.
As explained above, the game is based on the duality between light and shadow, good and evil, Man and Minotaur. This duality is not only a gameplay element but also the most interesting aspect of the game.
The game relies heavily on the light sensor in front of almost every modern smartphone. After calibrating it to detect bright and dark phases, you'll automatically switch to the dark side to help Asterion or the bright side with Theseus as shown below.
The system worked well during my review, but when you play at night or in low light conditions, you will have to recalibrate your phases. The game will automatically prompt you to do so anyway.
You can also 'cheat' by covering the top edge of your smartphone with your hand. The game offers a switch to block a certain phase without having to worry about the brightness of its environment, just so you know.
One of the only two drawbacks I noticed when it comes to gameplay is the feeling of boredom that occurs from time to time. The exploration phase where you control Theseus or Asterion, is extremely linear with no wiggle room for deviation. You point and click while searching the map in order to locate to find points of interest that unlock new dialogue branches in order to progress through all 6 levels, with each of them being depicted as a portal.
Let's talk about these dialogue branches, as they are the second gameplay flaw of this game. Designed to be played on a mobile device, Unmaze logically tries to emulate the gestures that we are used to making on a smartphone, which is then applied to the interface.
For example, the written dialogues appear as a WhatsApp conversation. So far, there is nothing unusual about that. But discussions between Ariadne and her two companions can be particularly lengthy. I found myself more than once tapping my screen frantically to skip lines of unnecessary dialogue.
If I had to illustrate this gripe further, I would compare this feeling to times when one of your colleagues spams you with dozens of messages, using just one word per message, instead of writing a single sentence in one go. This flaw quickly becomes annoying and also ruins the flow of the plot, which makes you want to cut it short.
Graphics: Dystopian SF atmosphere inspired by manga
You won't need a flagship device to run Unmaze smoothly. The first inspiration drawn by the Unamze team was Tekkon Kinkreet, a manga by Taiyou Matsumoto. In it, the author talks about the shortcomings of Japanese society, and is often viewed through the eyes of a child.
Another manga, Blame!, which is written and drawn by Tsutomu Nihei, proved to be a strong inspiration to the team. Since the duality of good and evil is also at the heart of the experience, the entire universe is reduced to a black and white cameo with shades of blue echoing the crystals, a central element of the game.
Personally, if I had to summarize the graphical elements of Unmaze, I would say that you would find yourself immersed in a partly alive and gigantic megastructure, whose scale is almost impossible to define. The dominant architectural features undoubtedly evoke a certain sense of modernity, a somewhat industrial and urban science fiction feel, complete with graffiti.
But we are also confronted with megalithic structures, ancient statues with Hellenistic columns that make you feel as though you were transported into an abandoned Acropolis, and, finally, more natural elements with an animal or organic connotation. The isometric 3D perspective and the variety of environments really make you want to explore every corner of the labyrinth and lose yourself in it.
Unmaze's universe has a real feel to it, a personality, and is very well adapted to its various influences. I regret that the animation elements were not more numerous or more frequent. The few that the game does offer add to the immersion considerably.
Visually, Unmaze is a very successful and neat graphic novel. The universe makes you want to dive into it, learn about the different influences that inspired the illustrations, and strive for perfection in your culture.
The soundtrack, although playing softly in the background, is perfectly consistent with the atmosphere that the game wants to convey and I would even say that the silence of the music reinforces the vastness of the labyrinth and the loneliness of the characters who wander in there.
As for the gameplay, I can only salute the brilliant idea of playing with light and making it an integral part of the game experience, mixing in-game and real-life elements. I can therefore forgive the relatively slow pace imposed by the SMS-like dialogues which irritated me somewhat.
Finally, I would say that the narration as well as the characters and their interactions are believable, if not natural. I didn't like feeling like a boomer with these teenagers and their emotional baggage. I also found it strange how lightly the final twist was handled. Ariadne sometimes made me feel like she was disconnected from the gravity of the situation.
Overall, Unmaze is a game that I would recommend without any hesitation. With nearly 4-5 hours of gameplay to unlock one of the 8 possible endings, I feel it is well worth its $3.99 price tag.