Unbound: Worlds Apart is a thrilling, mysterious Metroidvania developed by Alien Pixel Studios. Following a similar appearance to fellow puzzle platformers, like Hollow Knight or Ender Lilies, Worlds Apart has a melancholic feel to it. Even before the game is properly introduced there is an obvious weight behind the story. Maybe it’s due to our hooded protagonist, or possibly the way the world falls apart within the introductory animation. Either way, I found myself dying to know what is happening, and why.
But in an industry where every second game released is that of a metroidvania, it’s difficult to create something fresh off the press. It’s important to produce something which stands out, but as more developers are working hard to fit these niches – categories are running dry. A game like this has to have a spark. Something where people will see a trailer and feel just as excited to play as those did when Castlevania was released in 1986. Which I believe Unbound: Worlds Apart definitely provides.
There’s something compelling about this game, from the moment you pick it up to several hours later when you finally decide to put it down without realising the time. I fell in love with Unbound: Worlds Apart, from the moment it began. I can’t wait for you to do the same.
So by opening up this portal into the unknown, I am more than thrilled to introduce you to the plentiful world of Unbound. Let’s take a look to see what all the fuss is about.
Story: A World Beyond Our Own
Our story begins with Soli. A young, incredibly powerful mage with the world at their fingertips. But fortunately, not just the world you are initially introduced to. Soli is not only able to conjure up portals to a huge spectrum of dimensions, but is able to utilize their abilities to suit his journey. I found the concept of being able to generate these multiverse portals completely enthralling. This feature got me thinking so incredibly hard about how to solve puzzles. Which is nice after being so used to the classic approach of dodge enemies, unlock doors; AKA the majority of puzzle platform games. Not only are these skills used for puzzle solving, but they are also very important when it comes to evading the infected monsters now littering the map.
With the gorgeous world of Vaiya falling to chaos (not much of a surprise story-wise in this genre of game), Soli is one of the only survivors. Across your journey you will encounter a multitude of mages and characters which can help you heal the chaos. By learning new tactics and new ways to avoid danger and even death, your adventure becomes completely under your control. There is something so completely gratifying about being able to use your powers to progress. Whether that’s flipping everything completely upside down or using the portals to freeze enemies – everything is completely new and exciting.
The story of Unbound: Worlds Apart is supported by a series of cutscenes. Each of these are beautifully animated and really help bring the story to life. They give each character a personality, even despite the lack of narration. In a way sometimes this is the best approach to metroidvania since your own imagination can bring life to characters. Without any audible personality traits, the world is your oyster and your mind can run wild. I love things like this, because it makes adventures so unique.
Other games of this type, like Ender Lilies for example, also don’t use narration. A few sound effects here and there, but not a fully narrated cast. It opens the door of creative thinking, which a good game definitely should do. And I am certainly not shy of saying Unbound is just that.
Gameplay: an outstanding creation of chaos
Unbound: Worlds Apart on Nintendo Switch is, as mentioned, a very challenging approach to puzzle platformers. Whilst opening portals covers the platforming elements, entering different realms encourages the puzzle aspect. As you discover more of the map, you utilise each ability to your own advantage. But rather than blitzing through these levels, you certainly have to think. Whilst some enemies are terrifying regardless of realm or not – others will be incredibly useful to your adventure. To the standard eye, these creatures will be terrifying and kill you on impact. But opening portals can transform them into blocks, platforms, or flip them completely upside down.
I absolutely loved this element to Unbound, as it really lets you get to grips with controls quickly but also keeps them fresh and exciting throughout. Although Hollow Knight was another very successful metroidvania, once all abilities are unlocked it all seems a bit same-y.
Initially you learn very few buttons. A brief tutorial-esque beginning to the game explains everything you really need to know. You can jump and run, and open portals but that is it. You are granted new abilities upon defeating bosses and receiving gem shards, much like Hollow Knight. But even the boss fights are more entertaining I’d argue. You can’t attack, which is immediately an interesting take on ‘fighting’. So you have to make sure your portal operating skills are on point.
The monsters encountered within are even larger than the ones fought around the map, so you also have to ensure you are spatially aware and use your surrounding environment to your own advantage. I loved these fights due to them all being at completely different ends of the spectrum. From using a monster’s attacks to destroy itself to plunging into complete darkness and taking on the unknown, I fell in love with Unbound: Worlds Apart. For a game so simple in concept, there is so much substance to it that it becomes very difficult to argue against.
Not all portals are the same. Although the journey seems pretty consistent throughout the whole game, the map is divided by a large number of arches. Between some of these, you cannot open a portal, but others open up a new world beyond. One of my personal favourite realms was defying gravity – and using this ability to travel over massive amounts of spikes and thorns. I’m not particularly skilled when it comes to timing, so this was a test. But it was a very welcomed one. Although the amount of times I frustratingly slipped up and threw Soli to the spikes, it’s definitely rewarding to find a safe space after such a testing trial.
For the most part, the difficulty level maintains a consistent challenging pace. But obviously, as Soli grows stronger so do the enemies around you. The mages you encounter throughout seem to spread advice or lore and then disappear. But they all follow a similar goal, and that is to return to their worlds. If you find enough of these lost souls they will open up a portal where your abilities will be tested to the largest extent. During my first encounter with one of these worlds, the spike in difficulty felt quite dramatic.
Admittedly I probably wasn’t at the right skill level, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy my time there. Everything within Unbound has a sense of trial and error. Though this can be frustrating, as one hit seems to kill you and return you to the previous checkpoint, there is a sense of achievement when you finish a long stint of opening and closing portals. I loved the long hallways of spikes and deathtraps, where you have to time everything perfectly to ensure your survival. It feels real, as if you are totally in control. Which is what I believe Alien Pixel Studios were aiming to do.
Audio and Graphics: The Sweet Sounds of Exploration
Unbound: Worlds Apart is a beautiful, hand-drawn game. So visually, it is extremely charming. And also extremely detailed. There are a number of layers which go into the base appearance of every environment. Let alone the worlds beyond the portals. There is quite clearly a lot of time and effort embedded within these worlds so I certainly will not let that go unnoticed. Although our hero, Soli, is essentially just a pair of glowing eyes behind a robe – there is something equally as charming about them as the worlds they are saving. There’s also a subtle emphasis on Soli being so young as well, due to the fact their robe drapes over their hands and feet, and is more like a large blanket.
Each character is also illustrated in a haunting way. All mages and guides are just as baffling, but you could definitely tell them apart if they all stood in a line. There’s personality behind these glowing eyes. Despite it not being shown in appearance it certainly is within sound effects and general dialogue. To some this effort may seem lazy, but similarly to Hollow Knight, it just adds to the melancholic overall theme. The glowing eyes are a major feature within this game – as even your enemies have them. They are definitely used to highlight evil, intentional or not. When you come too close to an enemy, eyes glow a demonic red. So when you’re travelling through worlds encased in darkness this tool is definitely helpful.
One downside to the game’s graphics though would be the extremely long loading screens. Starting the game on Nintendo Switch takes a little under a minute to open. Which is incredibly annoying when you just want to pick up where you left off. Additionally, there are load times when entering different levels or worlds as well. After sitting in front of this game for upwards of two hours, the last thing I needed was a minute-long loading screen to shatter my immersion.
There is also a smattering of lag should you encounter too many large-scale enemies at once. Although most of the time these blips go unnoticed, should you find yourself balancing between two walls of thick brambles, one of these dips in frames could lead to a very frustrating death. I definitely found myself in these situations more than once, and yes, they make you just as angry each time.
The soundtrack is equally as detailed and phenomenal. It’s a beautiful orchestral array of tunes to emerge you into the worlds you are discovering. Every adventurer needs a motivational soundtrack, and Unbound definitely features one. The majority of songs on the soundtrack begin with a slow, solemn piano and build to ridiculous masterpieces. Following a minor key, the soundtrack just reflects on the depressing nature.
Furthermore the reference to Soli being ‘a child survivor’, some pieces of music contain intermittent music box ditties. Which are lovely upon first hearing but after a while they certainly become quite haunting. Each piece of music perfectly suits the peril of your journey, before coming to a woeful end.
Unbound: Worlds Apart was reviewed on Nintendo Switch.