UNREAL LIFE

This article is brought to us by @FangMakesStuff.


“A dark, lonely night. A locked apartment door. All she could see was a town she could not remember.” This is the premise of the Steam trailer for UNREAL LIFE, a sidescrolling point-and-click style adventure game by Japanese solo developer hako life, with music contributions from Hiraoka/DIA and published by room6 under its Yokaze label. A friend of mine showed it to our friend group, and I was immediately sold on its strong aesthetics.

The player takes control of Hal, an amnesic girl who finds herself in an unfamiliar city. She is awakened by the traffic light 195, an AI designed to prevent traffic accidents and is able to connect directly into Hal’s mind. With the assistance of 195, Hal remembers someone from her past: a woman named Miss Sakura. Unable to remember little more than Sakura’s name and appearance (can’t even remember how to read!), Hal decides to travel deeper into the city to search for Miss Sakura in hopes of restoring her lost memory.

UNREAL LIFE is a very genuine game, in that hako life proudly incorporates very distinct influences from many other pieces of media. When I first saw this game, my first immediate thought was that the game had some surface-level similarities to another 2D adventure game, Strange Telephone. Lo and behold, the developer has an official list of influences for the game that actually does includes Strange Telephone and many other pieces of media!

I point this out specifically because one of the first impressions I felt when playing the game was UNREAL LIFE‘s influence from classic RPG Maker games such as Ib and Yume Nikki. While made in an entirely different engine, the game carries a strong focus on quiet surrealism in its world and aesthetics that I think fans of adventure-style RPG Maker games would be right at home with.

The central mechanic of UNREAL LIFE is the ability for Hal to read the memories of objects via touch. By interacting with objects that contain memories, Hal is able to see snapshots of the object’s surrounding environments in the past. This mechanic is utilized as a means for giving hints on how to progress the story and solve various puzzles. UNREAL LIFE manages to switch things up with the touch mechanic just enough for it to not feel like repetitive “spot the difference” environmental puzzles. Notably, items with memories that aren’t stationary can provide clues about entirely different areas in the past than the surrounding area in the present, which is simple but effective in creating variety in puzzle design.

When you aren’t interacting with the memory mechanics, you’ll most likely be progressing using items that Hal picks up throughout the game. By taking items out of your bag, you can hold one item at a time to use or examine them with the press of a key/button.

A good handful of items fall under key items to be used on doors or given to NPCs. However, there’s a few items that give unique abilities that form the core of most of the game’s puzzles. An early example is a jar of shrimp that can be used on the floor to attract and move specific NPC characters. The world and chapter progression is neatly divided into “stages” that often focus on introducing and fleshing out these small mechanics in one area before moving onto the next. There are instances where older items are required to be used in a slightly different way in later puzzles, and by the end of the game all of your items will pretty much have all of their potential used in some capacity.

The puzzles themselves aren’t too difficult, but there are design choices in the game that may stump players. The most glaring one is the classic point-and-click adventure problem of sometimes needing to click pixels in the background to find new memory points to touch.

At the start of the game, there’s sparkles showing points that Hal can interact with that are highlighted with a cursor representing Hal’s vision. However, later in the game, there are a handful of points that aren’t automatically shown and are only revealed by either clicking near them (mouse) or pressing the interact button while Hal is underneath/over them (keyboard & controller). The game tends to be good at telegraphing what you would potentially need to interact with, but if you’re not observant, you may end up like me trying to solve a puzzle without a crucial memory.

Combined with a lack of a hint system or skip mechanics, you might get stuck on what could turn out to be very simple puzzles. On the flipside, the lack of hand holding makes it satisfying to complete said simple puzzles, even if it isn’t as complex as dedicated puzzle games. Personally, I think UNREAL LIFE has just the right amount of puzzle difficulty and length; not too complicated or long, but still worthwhile.

I wouldn’t say that puzzles are the main appeal of the game though, because at the end of the day the major selling point of UNREAL LIFE is the story. While the world of the game is moody and atmospheric, Hal comes across many colorful characters on her travels with 195 through the unfamiliar city. From a talking moss ball to penguins running a train station (very Penguindrum-esque; I was shocked that it wasn’t in the anime influences list), there’s a lot to love about how surreal the game gets without going completely off the rails.

Hal and 195 have a nice dynamic, with the two of them filling in the differences between Hal’s lack of world knowledge and 195’s lack of emotional knowledge. As Hal unearths lost memories, Hal experiences headaches and health complications that 195 tries their best to support as an AI built to protect humans from harm. Hal reads as a character with severe social anxiety that manifests itself as panic attacks, and later on she is explicitly stated to have Selective Mutism. As an emotional trainwreck myself, I found Hal to be very sympathetic. I appreciated that the game outright confirms her disorder in the story, rather than just having that aspect of her character implied despite not being super relevant to the plot. Without spoiling anything, the path to the true ending is very cathartic for those who invest themselves in the game’s memorable cast. And all of this is achieved in an average total playtime of about 3-5 hours! (If you’re not stuck or finding secrets.)

If the screenshots haven’t already convinced you otherwise, the art for this game is absolutely the most impressive aspect of the game. Making use of gorgeous pixel art combined with post-processing effects, the game effortlessly combines cyberpunk-adjacent glitch aesthetics with magical realism in its fully detailed environments and multiple event CGs. Character designs are well done, sprites are all smoothly animated, the color palettes are varied and evocative, and the visual effects used in cutscenes are really cool. Having many unique CGs for many of the game’s important scenes really elevated my engagement with the story, and the environments all feel unique to make exploring worthwhile. I would kill to have an artbook for this game.

Working in conjunction with the art is the audio for the game. The soundtrack consists primarily of ambient piano tracks for environment BGM, switching things up to visual novel-esque tracks that fit given story beats wherever necessary. By far the most stand-out track of the game is the full vocal ending theme written by the game’s developers. While I can’t see myself humming the tunes in the shower, the music is well utilized to emphasize emotions wherever needed. The game is VERY good at directing scenes to be in sync with specific music cues, especially towards the latter half of the game.

In terms of accessibility, UNREAL LIFE is generally pretty good. The game has specific support for displaying red highlights differently for colorblind users, the font for the game can be changed between a pixel-art consistent font and a more standard Sans-Serif font (I used the latter for ease of reading), and various post-processing visual effects can be adjusted to one’s liking. The game has an extremely good autosave system that makes specific saves at the start of each chapter and story branch so the player doesn’t need to make extra saves for stray things they’ve missed. In addition, the game has my favorite staple of visual novel features, the backlog! Not just for dialogue, but also for different memories you’ve seen! And there’s a helpful reminder section that recaps the story up to where you’re at! I appreciate these buffers for short term memory and desperately wish more games would include more backlogs.

Less accessible are the controls for the game. While the game supports controls for mouse-only, mouse & keyboard, keyboard-only, and controller setups, there’s no remapping to be found. While the game helpfully labels key-action pairings in the UI itself, not being able to change them might be rough for some players. The game isn’t very reaction-heavy, so it’s not the worst thing ever, but it is something to keep in mind.

Also, the “ideal” controls for this game are… inconsistent? Using a mouse works best for when you need to find hidden memory points in the environment since it’s more direct and responsive, but actually moving Hal with just a mouse requires clicking and dragging in a direction. Therefore, the ideal way to play would be keyboard and mouse, and that would be good… if it weren’t for a Spacewar!-style minigame introduced several chapters into the story, which while optional, is very fast-paced and movement heavy in a top-down space. This optional minigame is definitely best played with a controller since it involves 360 degree movement. I would advise trying out different control types and seeing which one is your favorite, then switching controls whenever it best fits the situation. (This game was originally released first on Nintendo Switch, so maybe controller is preferred…)

There are a few other wrinkles to UNREAL LIFE worth mentioning. The game has some horror elements sprinkled throughout the game that may unnerve some players, but honestly, even though they’re well presented I find that sometimes the horror is a little over the top and hammy. I still think it’s effective for conveying the emotion hako life was trying to portray, but the lack of subtlety in some scenes really distracted me at times.

Also, hey uh, the game has multiple instances where suicide and suicidal urges come into play. I don’t think there’s a clear content warning label anywhere for it, so if you struggle with that and/or general social anxiety, the horror elements and bad endings definitely might be much for you even if the scenes in question aren’t super graphic. Might need to send an inquiry to the developer about a content warning in the future?

In addition, while I found the main game to be satisfying, there are a number of post-true ending achievements and content that really soured my experience of the game. I’ll try to explain while dodging spoilers as much as possible:

Remember when I said that the game is genuine about its inspirations? Well, a number of those include anime from a very popular sci-fi visual novel. Usually from the long ones that I’ve played, sci-fi visual novels like to have twists that, when done well, introduces a shocking new development in the story that flips what was previously established on its head. Supporting this are a number of endings and content that can easily be replayed via either skip functions or flowcharts to achieve the “true ending”.

UNREAL LIFE has a few sci-fi elements present throughout the story, but it’s with the achievements where the game tries to invoke these sci-fi VN conventions, and it really doesn’t work with this game. The achievements expect the player to replay the game from a specific chapter twice in order to get all of them, and while the save system makes reaching this point in time easy, the game has no variance in text and no skip button for anything. As a result, you’ll find the once charming storyline a slog as you mash through textboxes of events you’ve already seen. The short hour count for the game can easily double when getting these achievements alone, not even counting the ones tied to the Spacewar! minigame.

The very obscure steps in attaining the achievements and some of the story content hidden here implies that the developer expected players to replay the game over and over to find them, not unlike getting the different standard endings in UNDERTALE. I feel like the developer liked UNDERTALE and other longform replayable games enough to try and invoke some of their meta-structural elements, but the problem is that UNREAL LIFE is designed around a single playthrough, rather than inherent replayability. Yes there are multiple endings, but the game autosaves at every branching point, therefore discarding any need to have multiple playthroughs. As a result, the replay achievements feel very tacked on after the fact and is the one place where being true to inspirations hurts the overall experience.

Plus, even though it explains a few background details hinted in the main story, the story content behind the achievements are underwhelming in terms of amount of content and actively undermine the true ending. If you’re going to play this game, don’t look at any of the story behind these achievements. Ignore their existence entirely. You’re not doing 100% completion in UNREAL LIFE.

If you’ve played the game and/or you’re morbidly curious, I’ve actually recorded a YouTube video of the story events for these achievements because I don’t want anyone to suffer hours of their time like I did. You can view it [HERE]. But here’s an explanation in text: [MAJOR ENDING SPOILERS ROT13]: Gur ebhgr gb “N pnhfny rkprcgvba” vzcyvrf gung gur ragver onpxfgbel bs Uny’f genhzn vaibyivat ure sbezre sevraqf naq Zvff Fnxhen jnf nyy negvsvpvnyyl perngrq va na rkcrevzrag ol zrtnpbecbengvba Urknzvaq gb erfrnepu “Punbf-Rlrf”, na novyvgl gb nygre pnhfr-rssrpg cebprffrf va gur havirefr naq vf gur rkcynangvba sbe Uny’f zrzbel naq fnir novyvgvrf. Nyfb Zvff Fnxhen jnf va ba vg gur jubyr gvzr? Guvf cybg gjvfg znl jbex jryy jvgu fbzrguvat yvxr Fgrvaf;Tngr gung unf zber gvzr gb sbphf ba guvf va n gehr raqvat, ohg qbrf abg jbex nf n fznyy rkgen va n fgbel fb tebhaqrq va uhzna rzbgvbaf. Vg onfvpnyyl fnlf gb zr gung Uny’f cnva naq nakvrgvrf jrer nyy negvsvpvnyyl perngrq naq rkcybvgrq ol gur crbcyr pybfrfg gb ure. Guvf vgfrys pbhyq or na vagrerfgvat cybgyvar, jvgu Uny qrnyvat jvgu na hapnevat flfgrz gung hfrq ure nf n gbby, juvyr nyfb npprcgvat ure eryngvbafuvc jvgu Zvff Fnxhen nf trahvar. Ohg gur NPGHNY GEHR RAQVAT bs gur tnzr nyernql qrzbafgengrf gur tnzr’f znva fgbel vf ragveryl havagrerfgrq va rkcybevat guvf ng nyy. Nf n erfhyg, guvf pbagrag perngrf n ynpx bs rzbgvbany erfbyhgvba gung jnfa’g gurer orsber. Uny vf pyrneyl obgurerq ol gurfr eriryngvbaf onfrq ba ure ernpgvba gb gelvat gb er-ragre gur ybpxre jurer fur svaqf gurfr guvatf bhg, ohg gurer’f abguvat gur cynlre pna qb naq 195 qbrfa’g npxabjyrqtr nal bs guvf. Ab qvnybthr ng nyy. Vg’f xvaq bs qrcerffvat va n ernyyl onq jnl. [/ROT13]

Despite these easily ignored flaws, I genuinely recommend UNREAL LIFE. The moment that really defines this game’s worth for me happens early on after the opening scenes. Hal, having been both physically and emotionally lost up to this point, is offered a meal by another character, Mo (the moss ball chef). The dish is simple: bacon, eggs, toast. Something that probably anyone can make. But the CG for such a simple dish is beautifully rendered, and Hal is so visibly moved by Mo’s generosity that even bacon and eggs reduces her to tears. UNREAL LIFE, and by extension hako life, is incredible at conveying strong emotion in even the mundane. While it isn’t perfect and may not innovate or revolutionize the indie game scene, there’s so much sincerity and high levels of execution to be found in UNREAL LIFE that it’s hard not to be impressed and captivated by the effort put into it.

UNREAL LIFE is available for Steam (EN, $19.99 USD) and Nintendo Switch (EN/JP, $22.99 USD). PC Version reviewed and self-purchased. All screenshots and footage recorded by me, Fang.

2 comments

  1. Just finished the game. I pretty much agree with your assessment. The technical presentation (audio – video) is the best part of the game, the emotional beats are effective although at times a bit excessive (in the “horror” sections, especially the one near a bad end) and at others a bit infantile or cliché (but the game literally says the latter so at least there is some awareness).

    The twist in the complete achievements is a baffling inclusion unless it is to be considered a non-canon easter egg, or if the game were to be expanded or reworked somehow into a bigger package. Better to never even know about it, but a misstep nonetheless.

    The puzzles were certainly on the easy/intuitive side, but it is not a bad thing in this day and age to be able to keep going at it because you know it is at a level of expected skill where you do not need a walkthrough on the side. Sometimes less is more also when speaking of difficulty, especially, as in this case, when a challenge is not and should not be what the game is mainly offering.

    Overall people well versed in coming of age stories, anime and other similar games (VNs and RPGmaker games) will find that most of the story takes pieces from here and there, but as it builds something cohesive it is not only excusable, but expected. Every artistic endeavour always builds on something that was already there while only adding a little on top of new.

    Yet having said this, the scene you mention where Hal is moved by Mo’s cooking is a bit too crudely lifted from Erased without the necessary emotional background: at that point in the story we really cannot understand why Hal would be moved by such kindness (to be honest, even after knowing of her social anxiety I still don’t get it, as she has experienced the kindness of at least two other people already, namely Miss Sakura and the boy at her school) while the girl in Erased never had any emotional support up the comparable scene which thus feels much more cathartic. Similar scenes later achieve a much better payoff precisely because the character of Hal is better established (I’m thinking of the “tomorrow’s story” scene right at the end, for example) and we know where she comes from to get there. So again it feels that maybe there was a bit of goofyness in wanting to lift some themes and scenes from works that hako (the developer) certainly liked a lot, but maybe in this department he went a lttle overboard.

    And yet I am baffled then that among his inspirations he never mentioned Alice in Wonderland. I can only conclude that it is a work of fiction so embedded in modern culture that one needs not to have read it to take something from it (a review on Steam put it well by saying that the game feels like “urban Alice in Wonderland”).

    Overall, a good short experience that makes me hope hako will keep making games or other works making use of his emotional understanding and pixel art ability, although working with a more experienced fiction writer would elevate his work immensely while reducing a bit the adolescent melodrama.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment! I haven’t watched Erased but I’m not too surprised that scene was derivative. I think the execution is still alright but I definitely think if I had actually seen the original scene that maybe my stance of the game would be somewhat different. Still a commendable effort and I agree that a collaboration with another writer can maybe reel things back with some fresh ideas.

      Like

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