Unexplored is the perfect name for a game in which you never seem to truly discover anything.
You know when you get to your 30s and 40s, and you start to get annoyed when people talk about music genres you’ve never heard of? GRIME ISN’T EVEN A THING, you think to yourself. I’m the same with videogames; for this review I begrudgingly looked up the definition for a “roguelite” game (as opposed to “roguelike”) then immediately clenched my head like a bowling ball. LET’S JUST CALL UNEXPLORED A DUNGEON CRAWLER.
With overly specific genre indulgence having put me in a mood, I then had to play Unexplored in the knowledge that all the cool kids think it’s good. It came out on Steam last year and got some pretty decent reviews. I never played it back then, but I’m now trying out the new Switch version that comes with all the DLC. Turns out I’m not one of the cool kids, because I really disliked it, a lot.
Those dungeons, then. Presented from an aerial perspective, the idea is to explore floor by floor and ultimately make it out with the “Amulet of Yendor”. Along the way are tactical twin-stick battles with monsters, punctuated by a whole bunch of lever-pulling and door-unlocking. The levels are procedurally generated (all the rage these days), which seems genuinely quite clever – that is, until realising that clever algorithms don’t necessarily make for an interesting or balanced gameplay experience.
Firstly, the levels take an age to generate and load. They then load again, intermittently, as you wander vast floors of nothingness in one of the most drab and featureless environments of recent memory. Performance is slow enough to make you think there’s something wrong. Maybe the game has crashed? Oh no, here’s the next grey floor. I couldn’t reassure myself that there was a reason for the wait, since the game’s assets are nondescript to the point of impaired function. I mean, a walked into the sea thinking it was a carpet.
The visual design issues continue with the more active game components, from the protagonist to enemies and level props. Our character on the customisation screen wasn’t even recognisable as an avatar at first sight. Enemies are little more than shapes. Doors, levers and other level furniture don’t really look like anything (which explains why everything has an unsightly caption next to it as you approach).
Mechanically, the experience feels slow and unrewarding; progress through each floor lacks a sense of purpose and direction, with no clear indication upon failure whether you did particularly well or not. Enemy encounters seem to veer between pointlessly pedestrian and uncompromisingly punishing, with little to learn from the experience given that it will all be different next time anyway.
I don’t like Unexplored. This might be a commentary on my cynical attitude to procedural game design, more than the game in itself. It would be fair to say I have reservations about all games in the genre, but rarely have they felt like quite such a joyless exercise in programming ingenuity over entertainment. Blame me rather than the game if you like. Either way, my copy of Unexplored is going to remain, quite literally, unexplored.
Unexplored: Unlocked Edition was provided to us via a download code for Nintendo Switch.