My anticipation for Unreal Life was going down like a lead balloon when I heard the gibberish dialogue. Will our journey even begin? Of course, it will. After muting all voices from the menu, the game kicked into gear and away we went.
It doesn’t feel like an exclusive to play and write about a game released on Steam and the Switch (North American waters) a year ago. Why the delay in coming to the EU store? This could be a prompt to do some research, but let’s focus on the task at hand: who are you?
Before you have an existential crisis, I’m referring to our protagonist Hal. No, it’s not a Kubrick homage, but a young girl with no apparent memories, though she can experience them from inanimate objects just by touching them. It’s a good reason to be labelled the local weirdo, but these objects link Hal’s past.
Fortunately, she doesn’t go on this journey alone and is accompanied by an AI named 195: a traffic signal. So far, this concept is madcap, and you’ll be forgiven for thinking this might be a little bit wacky, and can I say… stupid? But as mental as that sounds on paper or your blue light-infused rectangle, Hal is relatable, as is the story in Unreal Life. It’s emotionally charged.
Unreal Life is developed by hako life, they can tell a consistent narrative without any other story chefs spoiling the digital broth. After a mediocre attempt at research, the developer is Tokyo-based, and judging by their use of Nihongo, I’d assume they’re either Japanese or passed their JLPT 1.
Why is this relevant? Besides the apparent Japanese setting, Unreal Life has a very Japanese narrative style where less is more and ambiguity is a delicacy. I say this with snobbery as Japanese cinema is my bag, well, older films. The way Hal’s story is told with the frequent side entrances from the enigmatic Miss Sakura had me utterly hooked and filling in the blanks or simply letting them hang and feeling it. You can re-read that snobbery remark again if you like.
So the storytelling and presentation get my juices flowing. How does it play as a game? It’s slow and linear, but that’s a neutral statement. For me, that works, but I had a sneak peek at some of the comments on Steam, and the game doesn’t resonate as much as it does with those lucky to play it last year or the Japanophiles. That last term isn’t rude, so don’t call the police or consider cancelling anyone.
Hal will walk from left to right, controlled directly by you, Unreal Life is unlike a conventional point and click. When a hotspot occurs, you can press the A button and have the option to examine the hotspot, touch it and interact by selecting from your inventory and using that to decipher your past. The past is prominent here as each time you touch an object with a history, a screen indicates what to do next or has a memory to access.
These memories are experienced at the time of interaction, but you can relive them again from the menu and come to your conclusions. This helps with the game’s direction as it has multiple endings that can be somewhat melancholy. I’m not entirely sure how many endings there are – this isn’t a walkthrough, but I’m very satisfied with what I’ve experienced.
In the other review posted today for Detective Di, I noted that I’m not so keen on pixel art, but Unreal Life is another title that knocks it out of the park in terms of presentation. The art style is best suited to the storytelling and solo development aspect: it’s raw, personal and unique. There are a few occasions where it’s difficult to differentiate from some of the images, but overall it’s terrific, but it’s the story that reeled me in. Again, another recommendation, but I’d encourage you to read some of those Steam reviews on whether it’s for you. If you’re anything like me, though (bless you), you’ll love this.