The promises of virtual reality, eh? Technology bold enough to sever the stifling bonds that shackle our collective imagination, transporting us to fresh, awe-inspiring heights of experience. Or, in In Death: Unchained’s case: spawning legions of pot-bellied, demonic cherubs to pincushion us to death with arrows.
For the entire first level of this dark medieval archery roguelite, I’d pretty much only had to deal with threats at sight level. Longbow-wielding monks, shambling undead that go down easy but like to lurk around corners and attack in groups, and armoured knights all taught me to be cautious around all of them, but at least I usually knew which direction they were coming from.
Then, I made some progress, and hark! The cherubs descended from the sky, aglow in an illuminating halo of pure bastardry. Floating between opulent, desolate cathedral arches, peppering me with arrow fire. All of a sudden, the number of spots to safely reload my crossbow and catch my breath had drastically diminished. I can only imagine the renaissance artists that portrayed these things as heralds of romance had some deeply buried fondness for getting poked in the eye with sharp objects moving at ridiculous speeds.
The heavy heartbeat that warns me that I’m running out of health pounded in my ear, and there was real sweat on my temples. It’s here, in my final moments, that I realised two things: firstly, that In Death: Unchained is the first Quest game I’ve played that is this intensely punishing for all the right reasons, and secondly, that I am completely and utterly invested. I’ll be dead in less than ten seconds, and I’ll have started another run in less than twenty.
It’s good, this game. I’ll put that more or less upfront. It’s tense, oppressive and difficult, but it’s also satisfyingly arcade-like. You’ll need to be cautious to progress, slowly edging along dark corridors, trying to get the jump on whatever waits around the next corner. But this methodical, medieval SWAT approach only works right up until you need to duck, weave, and teleport around intense, busy skirmishes.
It’s also ethereally creepy in a way that most games seem to completely omit when taking cues from Dark Souls. Though the expected downgrade in visuals in the journey to Quest is a notable sacrifice, it’s hard to get hung up on too much. The first Dark Souls was a little bit cheap, and a little bit creaky, and desolate in ways that didn’t always feel deliberate, but all this only added to that intangible, haunting sense of lonely dread that permeated every pulpit and palisade. In Death: Unchained pulls off the same trick, often feeling as much a survival horror as an archery simulation. It elevates what could have been a core set of extremely solid archery mechanics in a standard gothic medieval setting into something that has a distinct flavour. It gets under your skin, and right through the other side, and then possibly gets stuck into the wall behind you. That’s an arrow metaphor there.
Movement comes in three flavours: teleport arrows for shooting and warping, teleport shards that you can toss directionally to perform a short jump, and a recently patched-in free locomotion that lets you (somewhat glacially) glide along with the left analogue stick.
This isn’t a case of just choosing a preference and sticking with it; they’re each designed to be combined and experimented with. You’ve also got access to a shield, so, for example, throwing teleport shards with your shield up is great for putting space between you and whatever sticky situation you’ve sausaged yourself into. I did occasionally get stuck at floor-level using the shards, but throwing another shard always fixed this instantly. This is good, because the skeletons are scary enough on their own, without them being twice your height.
The roguelite portion of the game also manages to avoid the staleness of repetition through an achievement system that alters the environment on each run, adding new enemies and pickups to the world when you complete certain challenges or milestones. As soon as you’ve killed 101 enemies, for example, you’ll unlock a crossbow, which you can select at the beginning of a run, replacing your standard bow. In theory, since the crossbow has shorter range, it’s designed for a more mobile, up-close style of play. It’s meant to offer an alternative to the bow, rather than supersede it.
In practise the crossbow is, uh..it’s just plain better in almost every regard. Faster, easier to reload, and just as accurate, you might lose that little bit of range, but the wealth of mobility options mean this never feels like much of sacrifice. The bow is, however, a much better arm workout. Also, you can pretend that you’re Legolas, so it does have that going for it.
Also of questionable balance is the various special arrows you can collect or purchase – with gold you get for doing all the killing – at various safe zones. I say “questionable balance”, I really mean “the needle arrows are crap, all the others are quite good.” There’s a bunch, from flaming arrows to explosive ricochet arrows, and they’re generally all a good time, even if it’s often easier just to stick with the standard shots than bother switching out mid-battle for a tactical advantage. You’ll unlock more with the achievements, too.
The best thing about the game, at least personally, is that it fills a really specific niche in the Quest’s lineup. Something that evokes the dedicated, single-player experiences of a dungeon crawl, an action RPG or a roguelite, but is physically involved and bite-sized enough that it compliments my regular Oculus rotation of Beat Saber and Pistol Whip.