Metroidvania is a crowded genre these days. And with games like Hollow Knight and the Ori series setting a high standard, would-be contenders can’t simply be satisfied with functionality. To make an impact, a metroidvania needs something that stands out. Unbound: Worlds Apart from Alien Pixel Studios makes its bid with a unique portal mechanic. Rather than fight enemies with a sword or control a large suite of movement abilities, you transform yourself and the world around you by opening and closing portals. It’s an interesting idea, and Unbound has flashes of brilliance. But much of the time, the scaffolding around this central mechanic fails to come together to form a dynamic and engaging whole.
In Unbound, you play as Soli, a young mage living in a peaceful town. The villagers are preparing for the annual ritual to reinforce a sealed portal that keeps a dark corruption at bay. But before the ritual can be completed, the seal breaks, and the town is overrun by terrifying demons. Soli, who themself has the power to open portals, must embark upon a quest to save their world as well as all the many others.
The central mechanic of Unbound is manipulating portals. At first, your portals transform the landscape around you. Blocks or hazards may exist in one world but not another. However, your portals can also attract danger. What looks like a harmless butterfly might in fact be a demonic monstrosity eager to devour you if you peek across the veil. In some areas, your portal has additional effects, for example reversing gravity or stopping time. You’ll have to combine the powers of your portal with platforming skills to navigate the obstacles standing in Soli’s path.
Puzzles and Perishing
Unbound sells itself as a puzzle platformer, and while you do sometimes push blocks around, I found that figuring out what to do was simple. The challenge is in the execution. Even as a platforming veteran, Unbound wasn’t easy. I had to learn to manipulate portals in between standard platforming actions, which was a new skill for me. As Soli progresses, they additionally gain a double jump, dash, and wall jump, adding more maneuvers to master. There are enemies, though you can’t fight them directly in most cases. You’ll need to slip past them or incapacitate them by using the environment to your advantage. Overcoming these challenges often requires a high standard of precision, but Unbound always feels fair. When I died, it was because I made a mistake, and forgiving checkpoints mean you never have to replay long stretches.
The one place where you do vanquish your foes is in boss battles. Because Soli has no weapons, this still usually means using the environment against the boss, although in some cases your portal ability might offer you a way to attack directly. I enjoyed fighting the bosses. They’re challenging, but Unbound doesn’t make the experience punishing. Soli can only take one hit and many bosses have multiple phases. However, when you die, it’s a quick affair, and the battle doesn’t always shunt you back to the very first phase.
A Fractured Whole
My main issue with Unbound is that the mechanics rarely feel like they are building up to something bigger. Part of this is that you can only use one type of portal at a time, so there’s no way to combine your most interesting abilities. In addition, most areas only ever allow you to use one type of portal, removing an element that could have added new life to old regions. Furthermore, there are substantial sections where you can’t open portals at all, and I don’t think taking away the game’s one distinctive mechanic for long stretches was the right call. Without portals, Unbound is just another game where you jump and push blocks.
There is a section toward the end of Unbound where things finally start to click. You frequently switch between types of portals and often retread the same spaces with different abilities, all while being pursued by fearsome foes. For me, this highlighted what Unbound could have been: a dynamic traversal experience where each ability reveals something new about a familiar world and you need to combine all of them to reach your goal. But by the time I finally got what I wanted, Unbound was ready to roll the credits.
Rewarding exploration is another mainstay of the metroidvania experience, and here again I feel Unbound is competent but nothing more. Every secret area I found led to a lost villager. Rescuing these lost villagers reveals lines of an epic poem “The Worlds Apart” that tells the history of the multiverse. I think the lost villagers are a nice addition, but I wanted something with more impact. In Hollow Knight, secrets have the potential to affect the gameplay and story in meaningful ways. And even if you don’t find these secrets—some are quite well hidden—hints scattered throughout the world and lore make clear that they exist. You can unlock an alternate ending to Unbound if you rescue all the lost villagers. This doesn’t provide any near-term reward or make the moment-to-moment experience of exploring any more exciting though.
Fast Forgotten Lore
The storytelling in Unbound is straightforward and largely forgettable. Soli embarks on several smaller quests gathering allies and materials before the final quest to save the world. There’s chatter about the Mage Order, the ones who shaped the portal system and sealed away the corruption, and whether they really had the right idea. But this never goes beyond characters offering different points of view. You can’t do anything meaningful to reform the Mage Order, even if you think it’s much needed. After all, the great mages you meet seem happy enough to push the fate of the multiverse onto a child and make Soli do all the work.
The characters are likewise bland. You meet various beings, often given grandiose names and titles with detailed visual designs to match. Many of them speak cryptically and vaguely about the game’s lore. But again, almost none of them have any meaningful part in Soli’s journey. Even in games known for atmospheric storytelling like the Souls series, the characters that stick with you have a bigger role to play. Solaire is memorable not only because his jovial attitude provides a moment’s respite from the oppressive world each time you cross paths, but also because he’ll back up his words by fighting at your side. Most of the characters in Unbound appear once to drop some lore and are then cast aside.
Sights, Sounds, and Extras
Visuals are where I think Unbound excels most. The hand-drawn art is beautiful, with charming character designs and evocative and varied landscapes. The artistic contrast of the portal mechanic is striking too. When you open a portal, the aesthetic inside it totally changes. New plants, terrain, and creatures drive home that you really have moved to another world. The contrast also helps you keep track of the action. Even when I was opening and closing portals in rapid succession, I never had any trouble discerning what was going on.
I enjoyed the soundtrack as well. It’s not quite so memorable that I’ll be humming it in my sleep, but the music is always fitting. Mournful laments cry tears for landscapes ravaged by corruption. Boss battles feature tense, rhythmic tracks. And in moments of danger, the music swells to push Soli onward.
Unbound can be completed in about 5 hours, likely with a few more added if you decide to rescue all the lost villagers for the alternate ending. Besides that and a few playful achievements to earn, there’s not much in the way of extras. If you’ve followed my reviews, you’ll know I have no issue with short games, but I do think Unbound is a bit light on content compared to its competitors. Both Hollow Knight and Ori and the Blind Forest launched at or below the $19.99 price of Unbound, and both have substantially more to do.
Unbound: Worlds Apart is a competent game that, despite its intriguing portal mechanic and charming looks, only occasionally rises to offer more. If you like metroidvanias and think the portals sound interesting, you’ll probably enjoy it. However, it doesn’t quite measure up to the admittedly high standards set by its alternatives.
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Many thanks go to Alien Pixel Studios for a PC review code for this title.
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A veteran of Oregon Trail and Battletoads, Wes has been playing and talking about games for as long as he can remember. He’s down to try almost anything, and he especially enjoys games with gripping narrative experiences.