A Space for the Unbound (2023)
Only a few weeks in 2023, I was already hearing buzz about a brand new game. I couldn't resist when I saw the intricate pixel art of A Space for the Unbound - which looks excellent on the Steam Deck, by the way. I knew close to nothing about the story going in, and I'm glad I went into it that way. A Space for the Unbound is a side-scrolling adventure about highschoolers Raya and Atma, where you'll use supernatural powers to stop the world from ending. A Space for the Unbound tells a painful yet hopeful story in a gorgeous, incredibly detailed pixel art world.
Your story starts as Atma, a high school boy hanging out in an abandoned bus with his friend Nirmala. Atma is co-authoring Nirmala's fantasy book, which we get a glimpse of in the opening of the game. Nirmala has a difficult home life and avoids going home, knowing she'll be scolded by her dad. Only a few minutes into the game, Atma finds himself in a perilous situation. He finds Nirmala has fallen off the dock into the water and is barely staying afloat. Neither of them know how to swim, so Atma tries to reach across to her using a book. He reaches too far and falls into the water, sinking quickly. Suddenly, he wakes up, perfectly fine, sitting in his desk at school. In front of him is a girl named Raya, who quickly reminds a foggy-headed Atma that she's his girlfriend. Atma convinces himself it was only a dream, then we are suddenly launched into a different world different from the one we started in. However, while on a date with Raya, Atma keeps encountering things that remind him of this dream and starts to wonder what's real.
A Space for the Unbound has the kind of pixel art environments I can just sit and stare at endlessly. I'd put it almost as high as Owlboy in terms of the intricate, awe-inspiring style it consistently has. Its cutscenes are in a similar style but with a more close-up, retro anime look. The animation is also incredibly impressive - the way character sprites move and behave is detailed and realistic even outside of cutscenes. I didn't know to expect an emotional and beautiful soundtrack from this game as well. The music is full of sad ballads as well as fun, silly tracks. Predictably, I've been blasting the vocal track "Within the Dream" ever since I finished the game.
A Space for the Unbound advertises itself as a game set in an Indonesian town in 90's. It's an interesting time capsule, but its also such an excellent way to place yourself somewhere across the Earth from yourself and learn about the culture and lifestyle. I love games that to do this well, the way that If Found... does with Ireland or Reverie does with New Zealand. The game's story is still accessible and relatable for anyone from any background, but for fun I did found myself googling local foods that were mentioned just to see what they looked like. There's a variety of characters you meet in this town, from high school bullies, to charlatan salesmen, to a lot of cats that you can pet. Being able to travel into peoples' minds, you're able to see their vulnerabilities and their flaws. Sure, this mechanic isn't new by any means (Psychonauts, Persona, etc.) but I did find that they the characters were self-aware about the ethical conundrum that this entails. Many characters appear one-dimensional at first, but you later realize there's a deeper story reason for that. Once you really get to know characters later in the game, you realize there's a lot more complexity and flaws than you realized when you first met them. Now, the game tells you this very even showing you the title screen, but I still think it's worth mentioning that the story delves into some really heavy topics that could be triggering for some - I recommend looking at this warnings before purchasing the game.
The style of A Space for the Unbound when I first saw images from it felt reminiscent of retro "beat 'em up" style games. Though I'm not really into those type of games, I found that this one had just a balanced amount of that gameplay. Most of the game involved exploring, talking to people, and doing puzzles instead of fighting. Also, once you learn the method to throwing punches and blocking, it's never really too difficult - that is, except for an optional challenge that I had to give up on eventually since it felt impossible. I actually enjoyed most of the game's optional mini-games, especially because there was a good story-based motivator of why you should complete them. I also appreciated the puzzles and how they involved both traveling insider someone's mind and going back out to fetch clues. I found some to be pretty challenging in the right amount, making you take a detailed look at everything. Overall, I had very few complaints about gameplay. For some weird reason, though, the game's saving was kind of sporadic and wouldn't save where I was even if I manually saved right after a long cutscene. I found myself having to rewatch cutscenes at times, which was a bit annoying, but that's really not too big a deal.
A Space for the Unbound is beautiful in many ways - visually, aurally, and emotionally. Despite some very dark turns, it feels like the overarching theme is compassion and forgiveness. It's been quite a while since I've cried so much from game's ending, and for that reason it will definitely stay in my mind for a while. I'd recommend this game to just about anyone, if you're prepared for an emotional experience and enjoy the somewhat "retro" style of this game.
"It's good to feel things deeply sometimes. It means you're alive."
A Space for the Unbound is available on PC, Switch, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S
Played on: PC (Steam Deck)
Playtime: 10 hrs