In Death: Unchained is the Quest iteration of one of PCVR’s best-kept secrets. It’s a spooky archery game that’s been given a lick of paint and additional content and has shaken off its earthly cables. Will it skewer its target with unerring accuracy, or impale its own foot on the flagstones with a badly fired crossbow bolt?
I KICK ASS FOR THE LORD
As a child, I largely ignored the louder Christian voices in my family. I did spend a lot of time in old churches and cathedrals, though, and passed nearly all of it thinking what a fantastic setting they would make for a game. It appears the designers of In Death, at least in its original incarnation, would agree with me. It’s set in heaven, you see – or at least, an afterlife of some kind – that heavily channels both John Milton and Dark Souls.
As an ethereal and anonymous archer, the player is tasked with forging a path through procedurally generated cloisters and churches, that grow impossibly from clouds and stretch out all around, seemingly infinitely. Every corner is packed with baddingtons; cowled, faceless monk-archers, rotting undead, angry Knights Templar, and worse. Armed with only a bow or crossbow, you’ve got to take them all out, find out what’s next, and banish the evils that beset you.
Gameplay-wise, it’s pretty simple. You carry your bow in one hand, draw arrows back, and fire. If you’re good, or lucky, you can take out some distant nasties with a headshot before they even know you’re there. You can bring up a shield to defend yourself with a button press, useful for incoming arrows and axes, or when being mobbed. And the movement is handled by firing a teleport arrow instead of a normal one, or by the use of a quick dash button if you find yourself in a tight spot. What has pleasingly been retained from the PC version is that the randomly-generated, unpredictable layout of the architecture is mostly accessible with a decent teleport shot. This enables you to skip bits of a level, get the drop on the evil sods from a roof, or even set foot on the snow-clouds that everything sits on. It’s really quite liberating, compared to the corridor-based delights of some other shooters on the Quest. As you progress through the game, you reach certain milestones which unlock enemy types and weapons on your next run. Reach certain levels of completion, and more areas in the game will unlock for you to start from next time. In Death: Unchained also features online global and friends leaderboards – always a good feature in a game like this which is suited to half-hour runs. This adds a competitive edge to the otherwise lonely wandering.
A HELL OF A HEAV’N
In Death: Unchained‘s presentation is, along with its excellent archery, its strongest feature. The sombre and sparse choral music and desaturated, bright and airy approach to its setting both breathe creepy new life into its genre. There’s really nothing else like it. While it might borrow a bit stylistically from the Dark Souls games – including the ominous fog door before a boss fight – the game is cut from a simpler cloth. It is a perfect VR shooter in many ways. And this is what makes the shortcomings of the ‘Unchained‘ Quest version so maddening.
A general lack of cohesion flutters around the edges of the game, probably due to it being in the hands of a new team. The cartoony, incongruous (if well-wrought) splash screen for the Quest version seems to indicate the identity crisis it’s having. The new custodians of the IP, Superbright, have added extra content to the Quest version, bolstering the environments from the PC original with a new area called ‘The Abyss’. Great – except that much of it isn’t nearly as good. Muddy, red and brown corridors should be kept for the likes of Quake. The fact that the game’s tutorial starts not in the white dreamscape of heaven but in the murky brown shitscape of – wherever it is – let’s call it Doncaster – is a huge mistake. The geometry and detail of the new level seem simpler than the brilliantly converted spires of the original, and it just doesn’t have the same appeal or imagination. We’ve seen scarecrow Halloween dummies for target practice before, and it’s a turnoff. It’s out of place and strange here. However, after the tutorial, we move on to the cumulous weirdness of heaven, and it’s an immediate improvement. But The Abyss is still there, waiting as a dubious reward for progressing further into the game.
COULD I HAVE WALKED THEE ROUND
I had prepared an elaborate rant (yes, me, of all people) about how the PC version had free movement options in addition to the teleportation, and how I can’t stand snap turning. However, the devs have assured me that a patch is imminent to add smooth turning and full locomotion to the game, so that’s excellent news, if bad for my word count. So I won’t be judging In Death: Unchained too harshly for the lack of those things at the moment. There are, however, two main criticisms I have of the game that are linked and which both need addressing for the game to reach its potential
[Editor’s Update #1: Superbright just informed us that they’ve managed to add Free Locomotion in time for the game’s release!]
DEVOID OF SENSE AND MOTION
The first is that some of the sound design is all over the place. Score a headshot from half a mile away, and the squelch of it rings pleasantly and rewardingly in your ears despite the distance. However, the audio for the evil sods isn’t nearly directional or loud enough, leading you to be overwhelmed unfairly at times as they approach you largely unheard from behind or the side. Secondly, there is a total lack of animation or visual feedback for when certain enemy types teleport closer to you. They just pop in and out of existence. The first time I saw it I thought it was a glitch. Couple this with the poor spatial audio and inconsistent volume levels, and it lets the experience down to the extent that it really hurts the gameplay. The first boss fight in the game brings this all to a head. You’re trapped in a chapel, with the big bad bearing down on you. His minions are spawning and teleporting in almost silently around you. It’s VR. Give me the audio-visual data I need to place things spatially that I might respond properly, you foul hellspawn!
IT’S THE TAKING PART THAT COUNTS
While I’m moaning, a side note. The game is full of achievements and milestones. When you earn one, this is conveyed by a big cartoon yellow medal that appears on your virtual hand. I swear it’s the same asinine clipart affair that my son’s school puts on their certificates for taking part in sports day. Whose idea was that? It’s called In Death: Unchained, so let’s not spoil the atmosphere with this My First Medal nonsense.
[Editor’s Update #2: We just tried out the update released today, and the medal is now sleeker and monochromatic! Doc should be hired as a full-time game design consultant, it seems!]
REIGN IN HELL, OR SERVE IN HEAVEN?
I’m upset with In Death: Unchained because it should be better. There’s a huge amount of amazing stuff in here, and I really want any Quest user who’s even vaguely interested to give it a try. Because when it works, it really works. You’ll be zipping about scoring unlikely headshots and generally enjoying the hell out of it. But then some crappy audio will kill you, sending you back to the start. Or perhaps you find yourself a little deeper into the game and rather less interested in the well-worn tropes of Goosebumps-friendly horror imagery that you’re suddenly traipsing through. Maybe the window-dressing doesn’t matter to you – each to their own. But there’s technically deficient stuff in here which makes it feel a bit unfinished and early access, and I hope they sort it out because I could well love it if they do.
DOC’s UPDATE: The game has now had an update which sorts a couple of the niggles I pointed out in my review. Firstly, the medal that appears on the back of the right hand is now a far classier affair, being a translucent white and a far more suitable design. Most importantly, the free locomotion has been added as promised and it transforms the game. You’ll still be using the teleport arrows as your main form of transport and the teleport crystal for some quick getaways. It doesn’t turn In Death into Doom. What it does do is make it possible to creep around corners, strafe along battlements and away from incoming arrows, and walk backwards while aiming. It’s such a brilliantly executed addition to the game that it really changes it up for the better, whilst preserving the flow and soul of the game. So hats off to the Superbright for a timely and well-executed update. And we’ve added another .5 to the score. If the audio gets improved, we might be looking at a 9 here folks. Stay tuned…
In Death: Unchained
TLDR : Summary
A heavily atmospheric and weirdly maudlin archery Milton-em-up with a mostly amazing feel, only let down by some technical annoyances and an inconsistent tone. Stylish and fun, with some good replayability and an addictive gameplay loop - but it could be so much better.