Review – Unbound: Worlds Apart

Thinking With Portals

Overview

Developer Alien Pixel Studios
Publisher Alien Pixel Studios
Genre Platformer, Adventure, Metroidvania
Platforms PC, Nintendo Switch (Reviewed)
Release Date July 28, 2021

Unbound: Worlds Apart is a metroidvania puzzle platformer from Alien Pixel Studios. If that sounded like a lot of genres crammed into one sentence, then you’re catching onto why it caught my attention. I’ve recently discovered the joy of a good puzzle platformer, sparked by my purchase of Wario Land 3 on the 3DS eShop. Thus, when I saw the trailer for Unbound, I was intrigued by its unique portal mechanic and how that might affect its open, Metroid-esque world. After playing through the entire 10+ hour story mode, it managed to live up to all those promises, but you might want to do a little more digging to decide if this particular adventure is up to your tastes.

Content Guide:

Violent Content: Every time Soli dies, they simply disappear with a spark. Some of the enemies, however, have rather gruesome deaths, with blood spattering and body parts falling off.

Spiritual Content: The story centers around mages who seek to explore the universe and other worlds. In doing so, they release a corruption that slowly infects all worlds. There is a clear element of light vs. dark throughout the game. The main villain is referred to as the Demon King, and the final boss battle takes place in an arena clearly based on the classic Christian interpretation of Hell.

Other Negative Elements: The later stages in the game really lean into the grotesque nature of the corruption. Some bosses have designs that might be distressing to some younger players.

Positive Elements: Throughout the adventure, Soli, your character, marches directly into dangerous situations in order to rescue those close to them. They go from a passive observer of the corruption to directly fighting against it.

ESRB Rating: T for Teen

Review:

Upon first glance, Unbound: Worlds Apart looks like a fairly standard metroidvania, with some pretty clear inspiration from Hollow Knight. The game is rendered in a style reminiscent of oil paintings, and it really does look gorgeous. The colors for each environment complement each other well, and that visual quality stays consistent throughout the entire game. There was clear care put into each screen of this game.

You’ll explore a total of three worlds in your playthrough, and each one stands apart from the others. You’ll start out in a verdant forest, then travel to a bleak desert, and finally traverse to the source of the corruption, which is dark, twisted, and grotesque. There’s no mistaking any of these worlds for one another.

A quick caveat regarding the visuals: though each larger world is unique, the areas within each of those worlds do start to blend together after a while. Each world is separated into various subareas that contain your objectives. In something like Super Metroid, each subarea is entirely different, with a different music track, color palette, and enemies to differentiate them. Unbound doesn’t do this. The color palette does indeed change slightly, but not enough to give any subarea its own character. The music also adjusts to fit each area, but it all ends up feeling like variations on one theme rather than separate tracks. This isn’t a huge issue, but it did lead to each world feeling a little homogeneous.

But enough about aesthetics. While the look of the game certainly caught my eye in trailers, what really sold me on it was the portal mechanic, in combination with the metroidvania platforming gameplay. So how does that hold up when the rubber hits the road?

Like I said, I expected Unbound to be a standard metroidvania puzzle platformer. And it is, about fifty percent of the time. The world is vast, stretching in all directions, and you’re free to explore wherever you like. Your only limit is what abilities you’ve unlocked. Once you have unlocked those abilities, it’s really a joy to come back to those areas and explore areas that were previously inaccessible.

But this is where Unbound sets itself apart from other games in its genre. Throughout the game, you’ll pass through gates that link Soli to various other worlds. With the push of a button, you’re able to open a portal to this other world, and this has various effects depending on which world you’ve linked to. Sometimes you’ll reverse gravity, sometimes you’ll transform nearby enemies into blocks you can push, sometimes you’ll shrink to fit into tiny passages, and sometimes you’ll gain immense speed to make crazy jumps. These portals add another level of strategy to navigating the game’s many challenges, and the game never allows it to become stale or predictable. If this had been handled differently, it could have easily been dismissed as a gimmick, but each and every area is designed around the portals you open, making every challenge feel intentional and perfectly suited to your powers. In addition, the ability you gain is always different, so you constantly have to adjust to whatever new tricks the game throws at you. This makes exploration rewarding and engaging throughout, and I was impressed by just how well Alien Pixel managed this.

So that’s fifty of the game. What about the other half? Well…this is where I should have done a little more digging. While half of the game is fun exploration, the other half is straight-up twitch platforming, cut from the same cloth as Super Meat Boy or VVVVV. You will die, often, and you will be playing the same area over and over as you memorize each and every button input with pixel-perfect timing to make it. This is where the game goes from engaging to frustrating, at least for me. Nothing ruins an experience more for me than being forced to look at the same two-minute stretch of level for over twenty minutes because I didn’t press the right button at just the right time.

In addition, there were a lot of “trick deaths” throughout the game. I’d be walking along, just minding my own business, when a pillar disguised into the landscape fell down from the ceiling, killing me instantly. It began to feel like I had to constantly be on edge for whatever the game felt like throwing at me next. Thankfully, there are numerous checkpoints, so a death never sets you back more than thirty seconds or so. But the constant loading screens did get a touch irritating after dying fifty times on a single challenge.

I acknowledge that this is a personal taste issue, and this does not make the game bad. It’s incredibly rewarding when you’re able to run a challenging section perfectly, and it really did make me feel accomplished watching Soli jump to and fro like a ninja. But it left a bad taste in my mouth nonetheless. To the game’s credit, twitch platforming is directly mentioned in the game’s eShop description; I just missed that little detail.

These areas are rendered even more frustrating by some strange control issues. First off, the entire game feels just a touch sluggish, especially when compared to other games with a similar style, like the aforementioned Hollow Knight. In addition, there were times that the buttons didn’t register when I pressed them. In later levels, this led to a lot of unfair deaths. It felt like some abilities, such as the dash, have a cooldown to them, but the game gives no indication as to when the cooldown timer has finished. A visual cue of some sort would have been helpful.

And finally, there were some serious frame dropping issues on the Switch version. Issues like that have never bothered me, but some areas of the game really chugged along, making platforming all the more difficult.

Conclusion

Though it may sound like I had a lot of complaints with Unbound: Worlds Apart, I enjoyed my time with this game. It’s incredibly rewarding and well designed, with constantly shifting circumstances to keep you engaged. While I personally find playing the same area over and over again to be frustrating, I know there are those who relish that kind of challenge.

It honestly feels like Unbound was designed for two conflicting audiences. Half of the game encourages open exploration and creative puzzle-solving, while the other forces you into pixel-perfect platforming and input memorization. I know for me, those two styles don’t overlap enough to justify blending them together like this. But maybe that’s just me. But if that particular blend of challenges sounds fun to you, then Unbound: Worlds Apart is worth the $20 entry fee. There are plenty of collectibles to encourage post-game exploration, and repeat playthroughs may be even more fun when you know what to expect. That sentiment applies to the entire game: learn what to expect and lean into what Unbound has to offer, and I think you can have a great time.

The Bottom Line

 

Unbound: Worlds Apart is a thoughtfully crafted twitch platformer, though its odd blend of gameplay styles leaves it feeling, ironically enough, caught between two worlds.

 

7.5

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Wesley Lantz

Wesley's first memory of video games is playing through Super Mario World with his mom when he was 3 years old. Since then, he's been a classic Nintendo kid, but has branched out to the far lands of PlayStation in recent years. He enjoys the worlds that video games create and share with their audiences, and the way video games bring together collaborators from so many different disciplines like music, visual art, literature, and even philosophy. He is an advocate for excellency in all things, but isn't immune to a few guilty pleasure games, which may or may not include Disney's Party for the GameCube.

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