Personally, I am a huge fan of necromancy in games, I enjoy commanding pets in general, but there’s something cooler about skeletons or demons.
Halfway through 2022, I thought I had exhausted all games with necromancy in them, until Necrosmith released. Necrosmith is a game about building your own minions and resurrecting them to defend your fort, while simultaneously exploring the map to acquire more upgrade materials.
It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, since the main character is more of a steampunk mage with loose morals than a real necromancer, and it doesn’t help that the game starts out with skeletons and zombies but quickly gets into robots and Nordic giants, which is a bit too unrelated to necromancy for my tastes.
Necrosmith was enjoyable but didn’t quite satisfy me, which is why I was very excited when I saw The Unliving a few months later. It seemed to be exactly what I wanted out of a necromancer game, walking around with a giant army of undead, destroying everything in your path, casting insane blood magic and resurrecting troops as your own.
The Unliving looked like a fun game, plus the visuals were impressive. So now I finally got a chance to play The Unliving, and I have quite a bit to say. First, check out some raw gameplay from my preview:
The game starts with the main character, who is refered to as ‘The Necromancer’, waking up with amnesia after dying. He slowly remembers the basics of necromancy and what killed him as he moves along.
I noticed I had no tutorial or explanation on what to do, which is fine by me. I usually find tutorials boring, but I would appreciate one of those diagrams that pop up to show you what every button does.
After checking online a bit, I saw the game does have an overlay that explains the mechanics to the player, but it doesn’t seem to show up if you are using a controller. I only found that out after a while, but the game’s controller support is mostly unfinished.
This should definitely be something that is communicated to the player, as I completely missed out on the tutorial because of it. Thankfully, I did learn the mechanics by myself, but I wasn’t done being crippled by the controller.
Immediately upon continuing the game I realized that the necromancer’s main attack is very awkward to control. It seems to aim towards the ground for some reason, meaning that most of the time the bolt will just go through an enemy without damaging them, as shown below on the giant:
The bolt seems to work like that to allow for targeting specific units during fights, like healers, but at a first glance it looks like your character has an attack that doesn’t connect properly, which doesn’t help with the game’s presentation.
I also noticed that I couldn’t pause the game while playing with a controller, because it wasn’t keybound, and I also couldn’t bind it myself because the game doesn’t have any binding options for controllers yet.
I wouldn’t advise anyone to play this game with a controller, simply because most of the game revolves around prioritizing targets. Targeting anything with a right stick that is simulating a mouse feels like a chore.
I feel like it is so much better to tell a player that controller support isn’t finished yet than to give someone a horrible first impression of the game’s controls, especially since they are in refund range.
I ended up switching to mouse and keyboard after this and the game felt a lot smoother, but this whole thing could have been avoided with a warning.
After playing for a while and having my neck bitten off by a werewolf I was quickly reminded that The Unliving is a roguelike, which meant that it was time to get to know the hub area and its characters.
The main hub looks really good, much like the rest of the game, it makes beautiful use of pixel art to create a tower littered with runic inscriptions on the floor.
I cannot state enough how pretty this game is, every environment, troop, enemy and NPC is really well drawn, it is a master class on pixel art. In the tower we meet the necromancer’s servants, whose names he slowly remembers throughout the course of the game.
The theme that both servants share is loss, as the necromancer’s lieutenant is missing an arm, and the necromancer’s student has a giant protruding crystal where her heart should be. This hints at how ruthless the necromancer was before he lost his memory.
His student had to be extraordinarily dedicated to serve him, mentioning that her tendons had to be sewn back together after every summoning ritual, we also find out that the necromancer himself cut the sword arm of his lieutenant, in order for him to use his wits rather than his strength.
The necromancer is also missing an arm, which has been replaced by a spectral green flame, it is a nice detail that may hint at the cost of his powers.
It is in the hub area that we also find out more about what happened earlier, as the ritual that killed the necromancer alongside a few of his other servants did make him immortal. This came at the cost of most of their research and parts of his soul, which are now scattered around the lands.
Something that I feel is a missed opportunity is the lack of undead in the tower itself, as every necromancer needs his undead servants outside of battle too.
Say what you will about World of Warcraft, but very few games manage to capture the aesthetics that Naxxramas and the Ebon Hold Necropolis had as undead hideouts. After that, we stick to the usual roguelike script, trying to get as far as possible while also collecting materials for permanent upgrades.
The Unliving doesn’t exactly have the most fun gameplay loop, as most of your participation in fights comes from holding the attack button and eventually dodging a stray arrow; the game does get more intricate with the usage of active skills, but most of them have high cooldowns, which means you won’t be using them that much.
The main mechanic of the game is killing enemies to resurrect them as undead, which you can then control and set to defend, attack or move. Controlling the army is fun but comes with its own issues.
AI for minions is always a tough thing to balance, they are brainless corpses, so they shouldn’t be too smart. It does become frustrating when they are too dumb, so games need to find a middle ground between what works and what doesn’t, and sadly The Unliving doesn’t have the best AI for both minions and enemies.
The most common thing to happen is amassing a huge army and having them completely block each other from participating in battle, just making each other completely useless, getting stuck on corners, or simply refusing to move at points.
It would seem that this was intentional, as it does get brought up in conversations, both of the necromancer’s servants mention being alone to travel further, except for the fact that having a smaller army objectively makes you weaker in the game, so even if you take it as a hint to sacrifice a few units, it still won’t be worthwhile. Having more units, even if they are blocking each other, is still better than having fewer.
The game’s permanent upgrades only seem to apply to your main weapon, with everything else serving as skills you could find in your run, which confirms to me that I am not missing some sort of upgrade that makes my troops ethereal or something.
All of the undead units look nice, and you even get different ones as you get to the game’s second map, which have a totally different set of skills.
The gameplay’s nuance comes from sacrificing your units in a useful way, which in my opinion is the least fun mechanic when it comes to necromancy, as it conflicts directly with the goal of building an army. Each unit has a skill that they use when sacrificed, and most of them feel like a waste.
The Unliving also suffers from a lack of impact, as nothing seems to react to getting hit and explosions aren’t loud or large enough, it almost seems like the developers are too scared to make the game unbalanced, which is a step on the wrong way, as the most fun thing about roguelikes is getting a super strong combination of powers.
The skills you get can be completely useless most of the time, since the enhancements to the sacrifice skills don’t change the fact that most of them are useless, and the active skills have very long cooldowns- so far I found two active skills worth using and one sacrificial skill worth grabbing, which is exactly the opposite of what you would want in a roguelike.
The potential for having sacrificial skills that let you completely change your entire army into something else is there, as some skills will summon another unit when used, but losing a good unit to spawn a single weaker unit will never be something the player wants to do.
The Unliving is a hard game, as the necromancer doesn’t have any momentum due to the restrictions placed on him, like only being able to resurrect troops after their whole group died. Some enemies will also go out of their way to focus on the necromancer, which does keep you on your toes, but ends up getting annoying when you are constantly followed by enemies that should be fighting your troops instead.
Difficult games have much less leeway when it comes to bugs, as something not working can immediately cripple your enjoyment of the game. In one of my runs I found an invincible cleric that continuously healed everyone until I lost most of my troops, then it just stood there doing nothing afterwards.
The restrictions mentioned above are in full force here, the cleric was alive and I couldn’t bring anyone on the ground back to life.
A problem like this is understandable, as the game is currently in Early Access, but that doesn’t stop it from being very frustrating, since rebuilding your army halfway through the level isn’t ideal, especially since I entered that fight with 60 units and left with 6.
This whole situation describes The Unliving‘s current state very well, it is a game held back by too much balancing issues and bugs. The Unliving can be a great game if the developers find a way to make both the active and sacrifice skills feel useful, work on the AI for both enemies and minions and fix the various bugs.
The game is still in Early Access, which is why I still have some hope for it, but at the moment it lacks most of what a roguelike needs to be fun.
The Unliving is now available for Playstation 4, Xbox One and Microsoft Windows (via Steam).