How would you like to experience a 2D isometric dungeon crawler with a mix of commanding the undead and roguelite elements? Developed by RocketBrush Studio and published by Team17, this indie RPG title makes you live your dreams of raising an army. Let’s tackle our first impressions of The Unliving.
The realm of the living has been corrupted to its core, and a storm is coming to change the world’s order. You play as a mighty Necromancer, a sorcerer who denies death and leads the legions of the dead. Clerics and lords hope to hide behind high walls, but there’s no stronghold to cover them from your wrath.
Graphics, Story, and Audio
The Unliving level design made me feel like I was playing Hades, while the art direction has a bit of that Dead Cells energy. You have your typical lair called the Edge of Immortality that looks like a special Batcave with your minions hanging around.
The story felt familiar at the beginning (reminds me a bit of Thymesia) since you’re trying to recall the Necromancer’s memories. You’re also met with a lieutenant, a student, and a character named Phylacterium, who looks like your shadow clone.
There are some dialogues that the Necromancer throws around in some cutscenes, but I wish the devs also invested in voice acting for the characters. To be honest, the presentation of characters gave me some Hades vibes, so I expected more audio dialogue to keep me immersed.
Adding the voices could’ve gotten me a bit interested in the story and why I’m stuck in this replay loop instead of speed-reading through what they’re saying and going straight into the fights. To be fair, I had that same feeling with Hades at times, but at least my attention was caught by listening to some excellent voice acting from time to time.
During my combat runs, I couldn’t pick up what the Necromancer was saying at times, even if I did adjust the in-game volume. The sound effects just get in the way.
Command Unique Armies
In The Unliving, you’ll get various living humans and creatures that you can resurrect, each with its own skill set. You must be careful because these skills consume your lifeforce (or lifespark as the game calls it), which is the Necromancer’s magic. The top left side of the UI shows this with a green bar.
Also, keep in mind that when you’re also activating each of your undead’s spells or skills, they will die instantly. So a good tip is to kill the ones with the lowest health.
The largest army you can control can go above 100. However, getting at least 40 to 50 undead at your disposal is enough to survive one area. I can assume that each world has its boss that you can raise from the dead since I’ve only cleared the Burial Isle twice.
It can become a bit overwhelming with so many things happening on screen, hindering visibility. This is not because of “bullet hell” gameplay but the challenge of finding your Necromancer in the middle of a huge undead army. It can get annoying when you’ve made it to the “boss” area, and you suddenly die without being aware of the cause.
Try and spot the Necromancer in the following images below:
Exploration, Spells, Skill Trees, and Other Hidden Gems
The Unliving gives us a lot of varieties with spells and skill trees to mess around with. You have a couple of upgrade options at your disposal while exploring the regions.
At the beginning of every run, you can to raise three peasants from the dead and select either a spell or a sacrificial rune through bones, blood, or echo essence. If you’re lucky, I would suggest getting either Bonethrower, Blood Tide, or Old Graveyard if you’re short in army power.
You start with a scythe as your main melee, but it’s not really strong enough to finish off a small horde in the early game, and dodging can be a bit glitchy.
Even the Necromancer’s starting spell will give you a hard time, and the energy runs out pretty quickly. Thankfully you can upgrade these once you return to the Edge of Tomorrow, making future runs easier.
During your world exploration, you can encounter an ash anvil to upgrade your hex weapon and some ware shops. There’s no map in The Unliving, but the area is pretty easy to traverse.
Unlike some games with an open world, you won’t feel lost. Part of the challenge is remembering each area you’ve visited. The blood and echo residues can give you clues if you’ve visited the area.
I felt that the Necromancer here in The Unliving this first impressions review felt rather weak. Though I got to pick up a stronger spell during my playthrough, I don’t have the option to equip it once I restart the run. Also, the melee combat felt off at times, and I noticed that I would lose a lifespark almost instantly at times.
The Unliving is more focused on keeping your army intact the entire run, and it’s almost impossible to fight through the worlds when you decide to go solo. It isn’t meant to be played that way. There are cases in which your undead army doesn’t feel like it’s attacking, maybe because of the lack of animation cues. They sometimes stand there, and it feels like they’re too cramped to attack.
An issue I had with my early playthroughs was that some of my undead minions weren’t moving in a certain area in Burial Isle. Also, when I freshly open the game, load my save file, and embark on my run, the loading takes too long. Hopefully, they will fix this while it does its rounds in early access.
Despite a procedurally generated map, I noticed a pattern in every world that I visited. Once you’ve found two ware shops, it’s already a sign that you’re nearing the level boss.
Minor bugs aside, I think that The Unliving has untapped potential to stand out in the indie category. It feels satisfying to kill a huge army of the living, and they become under your command with a single AoE spell. The RTS aspect could use a bit of work but overall, my first impressions of The Unliving are quite an enjoyable experience, clocking in almost 8 hours of playtime.
I don’t see that it can beat Hades or Dead Cells anytime soon, but I can see the effort they’ll put into this game for the next months.
If simple survival games such as Vampire Survivors can make players stick around, I can see The Unliving doing the same thing. Get this game on Steam if you want to support its early-access development. At least we have a roadmap to look forward to until the end of 2023.