Split Personality

I’m conflicted.  I don’t quite know how to feel after finishing A Space for the Unbound.  I sure knew what I would be getting myself into when approaching Mojiken’s (of Banyu Lintar Angin and When the Past was Around fame) newest narrative piece, but I’ll be honest, by the time I was done I was concerned.  There’s a lot of things I found wrong and a lot of things that I didn’t like.  But like Atma’s and Raya’s journey, we see something at its worst, but must bear through the experiences to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  And let me tell you, A Space for the Unbound, despite all its flaws, is worth playing.

I don’t want to delve too deep into the plot because the less you know about it the more interesting everything later becomes.  For Atma, a high school student with an aspiration to become a writer, and Raya, his better half with supernatural talents and personality, their lives become a topsy-turvy road to self-discovery and self-understanding baked into a point-and-click style based in a slice-of-life 1990s Indonesia.

You’ll rummage around your small rural town in a 2D side scroll, taking in the sights with Mojiken’s beautiful pixel art.  Each section of the town is bursting with color, lovingly handcrafted with a real passion to show off the best qualities of a tightly knit community.  When we start getting into the meat and potatoes of the story the double shots of beauty continue with a vast range of different areas, each providing an incredible amount of emotion that really sucks you into each frame.  These moments start off fast and furious, as a beautiful intro scene after a tense moment of mystery ties our shoes extra tight for the long road ahead.  From here, you get to learn about the hustle and bustle of the town around you: populated schoolyards and cramped storefronts to internet cafes and multi-theater megaplexes. The town is about 10 or so areas, which you’ll get used to quickly as the main story does not deviate too far from here.

The art department really flexes their muscles in conjunction with Unbound’s main plot mechanic: The Spacedive.  Spacediving, done by reading through a mysterious red book that doubles as your Map/Inventory/etc. Hub, allows you to delve into the minds of townsfolk and use intellect and puzzle-solving to help solve their internal struggles.  Spacediving puzzles are usually small 1-2 step processes and none are ever too difficult to complete.  The design of gathering items for objectives by fiddling with people’s heads is a very interesting, albeit exploitative mechanic (one the game fully realizes at a certain point).  Need chocolate for a cake but the general store is sold out?  Get the kid who’s hounding it to like veggies by literally tipping the scales of his obsession to a healthier alternative.  Trying to get someone to stop making fake apocalypse necklaces?  Make him love his kid more!  I’m not kidding.

Spacediving is leaned on a lot to move the story throughout its 11-13hr runtime, which becomes a lingering problem as the game progresses.  With Spacediving being used to gather items, a majority of your time is spent solely in fetch-quest loops.  You’ll be provided a list of what items you need, run around town at a brisk-not-fast pace, find the item but realize it’s blocked by something or someone.  You’ll then Spacedive to complete a character-specific puzzle that lasts roughly 2-3 minutes to get the item.  You’ll repeat this process a couple more times to gather the list of items you need to complete the main objective.  And then you’ll do it again.  And again.  And again.  The core gameplay loop is just this and it stretches the game to the point of snapping.

What makes this even more aggravating is that there’s some good plot development squeezed in between forced filler.  You’ll get 30-40 minutes of some focused character development and tantalizing crumbs to future prospects of current actions, but then the chapter will end and you’ll do the fetch-quest loop for another 2 hours before you can get back into it.  It’s like the game forces you to complete every side-quest in order to play the main mission.  And while the fetch-quests serve their purpose in providing context and buildup to the task at hand, there’s just too much of it that it deflates the tension of each chapter’s cliffhanger with such a long cooldown period.

Unbound, funnily enough, does have side quests to do as well.  These side quests are tied to the main plotline of the game.  Side quests like collecting certain items require a keen eye around random spots of the town, completing off-beat fetch-quests around random interactions from citizens, and naming cats that are placed randomly around the town.  These things are missable in specific chapters, so you can see the molasses-like speed this game takes when you’re expected to talk to every person in every part of town while looking for every sparkle on the ground and finding every cat while going through the fetch-quests above just to get a morsel of the main plot, and then doing it again for the 4 of the 6 chapters.  I was about halfway through the game when I started to just lose interest, which I guess I only have myself to blame for when I realized all of the above is tied to a secret ending and if you miss anything you don’t get the epilogue and you just have to play the whole game over again and not miss anything.  Tall ask.

But, after all this: why am I recommending A Space for the Unbound?  Because if you get past the first 4 chapters and into to the leaner, more focused final 2 chapters, you’ll be rewarded with some of the most heart-wrenching, tear-inducing, spirit-lifting writing you’ll get this year.  I cannot express how well the story pays off in the final act. I sat speechless for the last few hours as questions were answered and ends were tied.  It made everything I’ve talked about worth every moment. The impeccable writing, vibrant art filled with an ungodly amount of personality, and the musical score to tie it all in…dude I can’t even explain it.  It’s so fucking good.  It fires on all cylinders and slams it home so well that it makes me feel bad about how much I did not enjoy the rest of the game.

So here I am, conflicted.  I don’t quite know how to feel after finishing A Space for the Unbound.  The first half of the game is a disastrous case of doing-too-much to keep you in your seat: repetitive objectives, an overabundance of similar puzzles, and missable items that can ruin the full experience of the story if not found.  But the final third puts on a narrative tour de force of emotion and the quality of the writing, tempo, and atmosphere is something that should be celebrated at year’s end.  I fully endorse taking the time to experience this story, just know the long road ahead will be worth it.