Developer: Hako Seikatsu
Reviewed On: Nintendo Switch
Also On: PC
It’s a classic story: a protagonist awakens with no memory, in a world that seems beyond their comprehension. It happened with Another World, it happened with Flashback, and it even happened with the popular Technomancer books that hit the shelves some time ago. Amnesia is a popular plot device to help establish a character who is either too powerful for their own good, too evil to know what sins they committed or otherwise to simply start a tale and fill in the blanks later. Unreal Life, a pixel art adventure from indie developer hako life, is the bizarre and interesting take on being thrust into a surrealist world that seems to neither match nor exceed expectations at any given time. But, though players may not know necessarily what to expect, they will find the results memorable, if not satisfying.
Unreal Life puts you in the shoes of Hal, a young person (I think woman, but it’s hard to say) who awakens with no memory whatsoever. She is immediately aided by Unit 195, a talking traffic light who can follow her anywhere, mentally, through the electric field of her body. Hal quickly finds that she can see the memories of objects around her to peer backwards in time, and uses this to discover she is looking for someone: an older woman known only as Miss Sakura. Aided by Unit 195 and a bevy of eclectic characters (most of which are not human), Hal sets out to put her life back together and figure out where Miss Sakura is. Also, Hal is frequently beset by the growing dread that Miss Sakura’s disappearance has something to do with her, and the darker nature that grows inside Hal.
As a sidescrolling 2D adventure/puzzle game, Unreal Life progresses at an incredibly unhurried pace. In control of Hal, you walk from area to area, interacting with a limited number of objects. Quite a few you can simply examine for flavor text, but a handful of others move the story forward (for which you will be rewarded with a pleasant chime). Besides being able to talk to various NPCs, you can often touch items to see their memories, which give you a snapshot of the past to compare to the present. This, for example, will show you where a switch is hidden, or how a potted plant can be moved to reveal an alley. As a story intensive game, there is no worry about missing something or messing something up in order to create a dead state: Hal cannot and will not die from anything, and the game won’t hand you a single object without there being, eventually, a use for it. A far cry from the old LucasArts days, Unreal Life is very utilitarian and will get job done by any means necessary.
Some of the mechanics are interesting, but wholly not needed. For example, Hal begins to keep a strict stock catalogue of every thought, touch and conversation they have had, and the player can go back through the index at any point to review these ideas. While that might be great for players looking to scroll back through an exchange they touched through too quickly, it’s ultimately something that I never needed to reference. These types of tools are important for visual novels and dating simulations where key points and moments might be integral in what was said or done at an earlier point. With Unreal Life clocking in at a breezy 6 hours or so, there’s nothing there that needs to be called back substantially. The only exception was remembering what color penguin I needed to find to save a fish, and that was a one-in-a-million moment of clarity.
The design of Unreal Life is quite good, I cannot dispute that. Done in pixel art, hako life has done a phenomenal job of crafting a world that is evocative of something dreamlife and also nightmarish in the same swing. When you move from lighthearted moments of serene nightlife to terrifying flashbacks to Hal’s broken memory, it’s jarring, but in a good way. There’s a vision that’s unfolding before you, and the aesthetic of it comes through in sincerity and believability. The visuals are only boosted by the soundtrack, which hits on all the right moments and notes to keep the players engaged without overwhelming them with orchestral swells or moments. The spots of piano music, particularly in The Whale, are soothing and keep the dreamlike state going even as things begin to fall apart.
For a game so reliant on the story to drive it, Unreal Life does itself no favors by constantly sidetracking and getting wrapped up in moments that Hal really didn’t need to focus on as much. Additionally, the joke of Unit 195 being so unaware of the world grew a bit stale early on, so continually referencing the fact that a traffic light doesn’t know about a library and such was tiring before I got tired. The text does deliver a solid idea of what is happening and the truth behind Hal’s mysterious powers, but you have to be careful when interacting with the game, as you can easily touch a button and skip over some pivotal information too quickly. Again, the memory feature is helpful here, but it should serve as something to assist in the storytelling, not to compensate for a different flaw within the game.
Unreal Life brings some unique prospects to the table, and it’s clear to see why it was a darling at multiple awards shows. For many players, though, the pacing, the interface and the lack of exploration can be seen as a detractor instead of something beneficial. A story is told, but it’s no different than one you might have seen in .hack//NET, Serial Experiment Lain or, not to spoil too much, Blade Runner. Overall, come for the great presentation and music, but don’t expect to walk away with Citizen Kane: this is art house, not necessarily for everyone.
Unreal Life brings a surreal presentation that helps to mask an otherwise ordinary story.