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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Unexplored 2 review

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I’ve wandered into a stranger’s camp in the wilderness when some curious optional quest text pops up: “Sing a song.” How can I resist that? Unexplored 2’s textual role-play systems spring to life, and with them I guide my Wayfarer through a series of minor musical successes until they deliver what I’m told, via flavour text, is a loud rendition of a popular ditty. The applause for my impromptu performance isn’t exactly deafening, but it is enough to secure me a place by the campfire for the night.

Need to know

What is it? A fantasy roguelite with an emphasis on exploration over combat
Expect to pay: $24.99/£19.99
Developer: Ludomotion
Publisher: Big Sugar
Reviewed on: i7-10750H, RTX 3070 (laptop), 16GB RAM, SSD
Multiplayer? No
Link: Steam

When I’m not singing, my roguelite avatar is busy lugging modifier-laden equipment around a hostile procedurally-generated land in the hopes of delivering a magical object to a forbidden place to destroy it and save the world. Yes, it’s all a bit The Lord of The Rings, but Unexplored 2 is inspired by Tolkien in a way most fantasy games aren’t. Rather than subject me to another round of orc wars, hot elves, and magic swords with funny names, Unexplored 2 instead focuses on my traveller’s long, hard, journey, with combat being something I only resort to when I’ve either run out of lembas  waybread and need to hunt, or when I’m forced to defend myself. 

Unfortunately those bits in the books where the characters complain about being tired and hungry aren’t anyone’s favourite passages. The randomised events my Wayfarer discovers on the way offer brief flashes of interest, but ultimately Unexplored 2’s journey is channelling the filler that happens between all the really good stuff. Unlike The Lord of the Rings I can’t skim-read over the text when my character’s cold/hot/wet/tired again—and thanks to frequent bugs I can’t be sure my destination will work as intended when I finally arrive, either. 

500 miles

Unexplored 2’s twist on the classic roguelike is that the journey to destroy the Staff of Yendor could take multiple lifetimes to accomplish, so its world is persistent across generations and what I do with one adventurer can pay off in a future life. Travelling from one overworld map node to another usually triggers an event; some I have to navigate myself and some occur automatically as I pass through, but most seem to be about dodging a lot of falling rocks. Relentless, tediously accurate, omnipresent falling rocks.

There are better moments that deliver the spark of feeling like I’m adventuring. One time a fellow traveller mentions a friendly trading post, marking its location on my map. Another time I end up cold, wet, and in desperate need of a warm campfire after a long mountain hike. Some days I’m picking my way through narrow canyons filled with sharp rocks, dark caves, and strange beasts. 

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Combat in these encounters is simplistic: Battle involves holding a shield in one hand and something metallic and dangerous in the other, which can be swung with a quick press of the attack button or charged up for a stronger swipe. I ended up avoiding combat not because it’s risky or even because it’s usually pointless (though loot is rare in Unexplored 2), but because it’s repetitive and lacks a sense of weight and physical feedback. I never felt like I was defending myself against an enemy out for blood—more like the two of us were just repeating our stiff and unsatisfying attack animations at each other until one of us ran out of HP. It’s especially artificial because Unexplored 2 locks me into an area whenever someone wants me dead, justifying the encounter with a simple text message.

Yes, I know there are hostiles nearby: that’s why I’m trying to run away

Conversations and mini role-play scenarios are a much meatier part of Unexplored 2, combining my current Wayfarer’s personal skills with a wide range of unusual status effects and a “Fortune System” that tries to simulate tabletop RPGs. Together these things generate a malleable pool of outcomes—I might be able to intimidate a bunch of thieves out of caving my head in, but that doesn’t mean I won’t struggle to pick a rusty lock, especially if I’m wounded. A good trade can make me well-liked in the local area, or a clan might tolerate me wandering around their town but not allow me to sleep in the inn even when I’m exhausted or injured. One time I happened to cross a random guard who didn’t like the look of an outsider like myself, and since I wasn’t able to sweet-talk my way out of trouble I ended up running out of town with a mob at my back. 

In these fleeting moments Unexplored 2 is alive and unpredictable, as if I’m one person walking within a world populated by countless others, one that continues to change and grow even when I’m not in it. It feels intimate and unique: my Wayfarer is an individual trying to make their way across a harsh landscape, not a cardboard hero progressing through a game.

This feeling doesn’t last.

500 more

This moment-to-moment role-playing would land better if Unexplored 2 didn’t suffer from more than a few major storytelling problems. When my quest begins the village loremaster is happy to tell me I need to take the staff to The First Valley—a place nobody knows how to get to—but not why I need to spend generations doing so. I have to find out the game’s most basic goal—destroying the staff saves the world for some reason—not from fellow travellers, ancient inscriptions, or dusty tomes, but the quest log, bullet points that turn what should be an epic adventure into a fantasy shopping list. It’s disappointing that a game that’s so detailed even random farmers can form an opinion of me ends up presenting vital worldbuilding in a menu.

Unexplored 2 desperately wants to be a roguelite with a story. One where traders travel from one distant camp to another, an evil empire spreads its corrupting tendrils across the lands of the good and free, and foreboding shrines to the gods bring enlightenment. But there’s neither the volume or substance of text it needs to back these ambitions up.

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I’ve seen two separate NPCs in the same village share dialogue, one person decide they’re going to dedicate years or their life to telling everyone they meet they should eat mushrooms, and spent literally a full in-game day translating the text on an ancient temple monument only to be told—and this is a direct quote after a successful attempt—”The inscription depicts the deeds of Raaf.”

At least the game’s pretty enough to briefly distract me. Unexplored 2’s delicate lines, bold colours, and alien designs bring to mind the surreal fantasy work of French artist Moebius. Giant lily pads bob as I wade through crystal-clear water, pond edges glowing like fire in the morning sun. Birds hop around on grassy meadows and strange flowers sparkle in the dark. These visual feasts help to silently convey the passage of time and distance, the long shadows of a pink dusk turning into inky blue night as I sit beside the deep orange of a campfire.

How pretty this world looks is largely out of my—and my PC’s—hands, as there are only a few basic graphic settings. There are some general presets with single word descriptions, varying levels of MSAA and fullscreen/windowed modes, and that’s about it. There’s no option to set a target FPS, reduce shadow detail, increase ground clutter, or anything like that.

No matter the settings I experienced some awful and unpredictable framerate drops, even when simply going down a staircase I just walked up or running across an empty pancake-flat field. The overworld map—the least graphically demanding part of the game—is no better, often stuttering as it trips over its own on-the-fly level generation. 

Without a paddle

Unfortunately those performance issues are nothing compared to the bugs that currently riddle Unexplored 2’s core. During the introduction a wise and mysterious NPC urged me to escape to Haven before the Empire caught up with me, so imagine my surprise when I bumped into them again in the village and had to listen to the idiot repeat the same dialogue in full. This happens every single time I go back to Haven. In fact they’re still there weeks later, still wondering why I haven’t rushed off to the place we’re standing in.

A “helpful” message later popped up when I entered a new location, reminding me to take the staff to Haven. Even though I was there because I’d just finished taking the damned staff to Haven.

Crumbling doors Unexplored 2 tells me will buckle with sufficient force fail to react to any blow. The cave entrance in the tutorial section was half buried in a solid wall that visibly led nowhere. Getting lost once teleported my Wayfarer’s icon to a void-like corner of the map. 

Worse than any of those was the time, on a fresh save in a new world, Unexplored 2 suddenly refused to let me walk more than two map nodes away from my starting point no matter how many times I trekked back and forth trying to find a route out into the larger world. This issue persisted until I travelled in a trader’s caravan to nowhere in particular, which was the magical flick of a switch that made the game decide it was going to behave as normal and finally let me walk wherever I liked, which I should’ve been able to do in the first place.

Trust plays a huge role in all procedurally generated games, but it’s absolutely vital in a persistent world where all the machine-made locations remain exactly the same from one character to the next. Nobody has the time to pour hours into a game that might render a major location inaccessible or leave an important character spouting nonsense somewhere they’re not supposed to be.

Although future updates have been promised, the “full release” build (the developers’ description) I played for review is currently too broken to interact with as intended, and this uncertainty taints every challenge my Wayfarer faces. When things do go right I don’t feel like I’ve overcome a new challenge in a vast and unknown world. I’m just relieved the game’s working as intended, at least for the moment.

The Verdict


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Unexplored 2

Unexplored 2 has potential, but right now the adventure’s unreliable and storytelling’s seriously flawed.

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