Future Unfolding (PC) review
"I never thought I'd see a mashup of 'Day of the Animals' and Journey, but here we are..."
I'm going to lump readers into two groups before I begin. "Group A" consists of folks who don't know what the game Future Unfolding entails and would prefer that I keep its secrets quiet. As it turns out, you're intended to enter this title completely ignorant, which I can only imagine makes it difficult to market. It doesn't come with any instructions or tutorials because figuring out how it works is half the experience. On the flip side, "Group B" either already knows how the game functions or doesn't care if dish out some spoilers. These are the ones who should stick around until the end of this review. What of Group A, you ask? I'll tell them when they can safely exit...
Without giving away much, Unfolding offers unconventional mechanics and content. You begin the affair when you materialize in the middle of a forest, where you tinker with your abilities and surroundings to see how they interact. Occurrences lead to numerous "aha" moments and eventually some semblance of a goal. Occasionally, NPCs appear that provide little hints or bits of a backstory, and you realize after some time precisely what you must do to advance the campaign.
There's one thing you must keep in mind: the environment is procedurally generated. You seldom play the same stage twice, as all of the real estate sees a remix with each new level. This arrangement proves to be both fantastic and problematic, though. One on hand, fresh terrain meshes terrifically with the game's themes of searching, experimentation, and discovery. You never know where precisely to go, and no one can counsel you on which road to take. You must uncover that for yourself by diving in and exploring the vast expanses before you.
On the other hand, sometimes randomization paints you into a corner and you don't realize it until you've put a ton of effort into completing a challenge. For instance, during my playthrough, one of the worlds I visited wouldn't let me complete it because it placed its objective on a high ledge with no way to climb it. As unluck would have it, Unfolding randomly generated a path up to a plateau that was blocked by a solid wall. I would have given up on the experience entirely were there not an option it the main menu that allows players to restart a level, the game remixing the assets in the process. Apparently, this was a common enough issue that it warranted an in-game fix. Hell, there was also an "unstuck" selection for occasions when I inadvertently clipped through the environment and became fixed to it as a result...
However, this is a small price to pay for the absolute beauty the game offers. Unfolding isn't a AAA-style visual feast of photo-realistic graphics and theatrical presentation. Nonetheless, it impresses with gorgeous sights and a remarkable, mellow soundtrack by Thomas Carleberg & Emil Nilsson. This is isn't one of those titles where you can glimpse a screenshot while playing its score in the background for the full effect. You actually have to delve in and watch it in motion, experience its rich and colorful environment unfold (no pun intended) before you while soothing tunes combine with the game's sense of discovery and natural grandeur.
Group A, you may be excused. Get out of here so I can tuck into the more detailed info that just might ruin Unfolding surprises. Just take a quick look at my rating and understand that I ultimately give this piece my stamp of approval.
Are they gone? Good.
It's been a little difficult not to get into how this title operates up to now. You assume the role of a nameless, faceless human who wanders the awe-inspiring wilderness and interacts with it through some apparently magical powers. With the press of a button, you dash across the land and create a streak of brilliant color. This skill allows you to not only evade enemies that crop up later on, but also to create allies. As you jog across various types of vegetation, you will deer, sheep, or rabbits into existence that aid you in your journey. Without them, you could never leap over spacious gaps in the ground, teleport to out-of-reach regions of the map, or create bushes that serve as barriers for foes. Bear in mind that the game doesn't instruct you outright to perform these tasks. You only realize deer can bound over gorges after you create them, find out you can ride them by playing with a few button combinations, then make them dash after you've mounted one.
You also possess a unique ability to trigger changes in your vicinity. For instance, by casting this spell on certain bushes, you warp to a different part of the world. Another piece of environment transforms boulders into passable plants when enchanted.
Using these talents, you search the great outdoors for an exit that usually takes the form of a tremendous, glowing, sun-like orb. In most cases, your search for this goal proves lengthy because you need to puzzle your way through numerous tasks before uncovering its whereabouts. Quite often, you accomplish this end by finding a puzzle to solve in the middle of a meadow, usually requiring you to magically connect various stimuli to create runes or sigils in the ground. In doing so, portals that warp you to alternate locations take shape, sometimes placing you right next to the egress. You also come across floating pyramids that change color when you interact with them. After recoloring three of them, a marker appears on your map showing you where a secret (or even the exit) lies.
Although this arrangement sounds like a walk in the park, some difficult moments stifle your progress. Wolves appear that divide like amoebas and kill you with a single bite, snakes generate writhing mobs of their kindred to destroy terrain and wipe you out, and bees treat you like your name is Thomas Jay. Thankfully, death is merely an annoying setback, as you respawn with all progress intact. Make no mistake, though: foes still appear in ways that will test you and stop you short of your goal if you're not careful.
At first, this setup proves fresh and invigorating. Unfolding's material mixed with its gorgeous audio and visual components and its sense of discovery carry the title for several stages. However, after a while I found myself just wanting to be done with the whole affair. The campaign sometimes feels like it drags on longer than it should, which only worsens when you encounter an unbeatable layout like the one I previously described. Don't get me wrong, because this title remains terrific. However, it's one of those pieces that should've been about one-third to half as long as it actually was. It's just not a particularly difficult piece and it's not varied enough to serve as a lengthy adventure.
Still, one strong message stands at the core of this work: the concept that nature still has plenty of mysteries and surprises to offer us. We don't know everything yet, and I don't know if we ever will as a species. In a way, it's wonderful that there's still so much information out there for us to unravel as we experiment and hypothesize. Perhaps the game wants to remind us to never approach the natural world as know-it-alls, but to find ways to remain curious. It communicates this point beautifully...
Staff review by Joseph Shaffer (April 29, 2023)
Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.
More Reviews by Joseph Shaffer [+]
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