Developer Wadjet Eye’s latest adventure game, Unavowed, sounds on paper like any number of urban-fantasy novels and television shows. The small New York chapter of a magic investigation group keeps tabs on supernatural beings and their powers, and right under the noses of an unsuspecting public referred to as “mundanes.” You begin in the middle of your character’s own exorcism, restrained by the powerful half-jinn Mandana while the fire mage Eli casts out the demon that’s possessed your body—and used it to wreak havoc—for an entire year. To make amends for the demon’s gruesome mischief, you join Eli and Mandana’s organization known as the Unavowed and travel throughout the city, investigating new supernatural disturbances.
The familiarity of the game’s premise and its structure—of cases feeding tangentially into an overarching plot—recalls a good TV procedural, which is far from a bad thing. A procedural’s episodic, unhurried pace provides the space to luxuriate in the mysteries of a place and its inhabitants. The best parts of Unavowed recreate the strengths of this brand of TV: Amid some legitimately unsettling horrors and gory scenes, the game lets you find solace in the company of its characters—a comfort that envelops every screen of the game like the gentle patter of ever-present rain on its New York streets.
At headquarters or on missions, or while riding the subway, your companions interact and converse with one another. The playful ghost KayKay creeps out Vicki, obstructing the ex-cop’s target practice. Elsewhere, Mandana chides Eli for reading a first-hand account of a historical event she was present for and willing to tell him about (he wants the monster-free version first). Throughout, they crack jokes, ask each other how they’re adjusting, discuss their pasts.
The game's more successful cases ask you to evaluate your definitions of things like mercy and humanity.
The game’s combination of the magical and the mundane is impressive in its scope; there’s a real sense of history to Unavowed, from the layers of your companions’ rich backstories to the workings of a larger, stranger universe that includes banana-tree spirits and mysterious forest altars growing from concrete. Though some of the game’s cases are more engrossing than others, all of them force tricky moral decisions that constantly ask you to evaluate your definitions of things like mercy and humanity. And as with many procedurals, the cases that are less successful at holding attention at least make up the difference through strong characterizations that embody themes about how we deal with the past and how it defines us.
Unavowed‘s focus on your companions extends in equally attentive fashion to the puzzles. From an eventual pool of four, you choose two people to accompany you on a case, and the pairing affects the resulting dialogue choices and puzzle solutions. Eli’s fireballs, for example, can knock objects down from high places, and he can read any papers that were destroyed by fire. Only one character, Logan, can interact with ghosts, and the absence of Mandana’s physical strength might mean you can’t open certain paths. Vicki, whose main skill seems to be her comical willingness to blast objects with her pistol in public, unfortunately feels underdeveloped, both in terms of puzzle-solving abilities and characterization. Seemingly all of her lines revolve around the phrase “my cop family.” And although Logan’s ability to commune with ghosts opens up more of Unavowed‘s fantastic dialogue, the game keeps him in the smallest of boxes as only a recovering alcoholic; he doesn’t have interests and a life that aren’t necessarily defined by his illness.
Though simple puzzles work to keep the story moving, they also create some incongruously video game-y moments; an emotional dive into Eli’s past is interrupted by a trip to count the number of flower pots on a roof. The way the game incorporates your moral decisions is also awkward. It all but shouts the eventual results of your choices back to you during the climax, less interested in seamlessly integrating those results into the details of the story than providing you with proof that your choices did matter. Such flaws stand out all the more because of how natural and assured Unavowed otherwise feels. But none of the game’s shortcomings dampen the appeal of its setting, as every play session leaves you with the same feeling that a great procedural will: a desire to return to this world and its characters again and again.