Ancient India during a famine probably wouldn't count as one of the more popular game settings out there, but it’s the one story-driven indie title Unrest adopts. Set in the fictional kingdom of Bhirma, the story follows various characters at a time of hunger and civil unrest, complete with a spattering of fantasy in the form of the giant, snake-like Naga that inhabit the city alongside humans.
Through the game, you’ll play a huge array of characters, from a poor peasant girl engaged to marry a boy of higher social standing that she does not love, to a Naga diplomat, to a human princess and a middle-aged priest...
The story is moved along through narrative; as you speak with people you are presented with a range of choices and “character trait” bars. Persistently choosing aggressive replies may, for instance, lower your “understanding” character trait, and so on. The choices you make are key to how the plot progresses; failing to be diplomatic can be ruthlessly effective at some moments and result in your untimely demise at others.
It’s a well designed system, and there are literally dozens of outcomes of each tiny segment of story, which in turn fundamentally changes the plot. As an elderly priest handing out medicine, for instance, you can choose to sell your wares on the black market and gain personal wealth, or stick by your moral principles and end up stabbed in an alley. Death is a real consequence for virtually all the characters you play in a single run through of Unrest, and it does hammer home the serious themes of the game. Famine, political corruption, religion, race and poverty are all dealt with with powerful story telling.
However, whilst the game contains a number of traditional RPG items, including an inventory and character traits, these if anything seem to get in the way of the gameplay. I found myself frequently thinking that the game - with its fantastic setting and storytelling - might have worked better as an adventure game in the style of Telltale’s narrative stories.
Unrest is also not without its design flaws, the primary one of which is the visual presentation and polish of Unrest. Crashes are not uncommon, and there are some irritating flaws that cause Unrest to bug uncontrollably. Changing resolution, for instance, caused the game screen to shatter, forcing a reboot. There are also some fairly major issues with pathfinding. The rather overzealous collision detection makes it rather hard to tell where exactly on the map you can move; I frequently found myself having to detour when large open gaps proved too big to move through. At other points, however, collision detection seemed entirely absent, and I more than once found myself conversing with someone I was apparently stood on top of. The hand painted figures and environments are charming in their simplicity, but the patchy animation and low production value somewhat gets in the way of the story.
Whilst these are relatively minor complaints, they greatly affect immersion in a game in which narrative involvement is key. It was not only visuals that glitched, either. Whilst Unrest has a solid and atmospheric soundtrack, there is no loop on them, meaning if you spend longer than the duration of the track in one section, the music ends abruptly, which gets a tad annoying.
The varying moral outcomes and unpredictable action-consequence relationship is interesting, but it has been done better even this year; The Banner Saga and Always Sometimes Monsters both took this concept further and with more polish in 2014. Unrest is a solid RPG which at times shows flashes of brilliance and innovation, and would be a decent purchase for fans of this kind of experimental morality game. Those not already fans of the genre, however, may find this lack of polish prevents their conversion. Whilst Unrest is enjoyable, too often do its flaws get in the way of gameplay, frustrating enjoyment and creating a sense that this fascinating little indie RPG never really lives up to its potential.