We can only imagine what we would have done with superpowers when we were aged fifteen. Probably some explosive temper tantrums and hiding in a cloud to calm down. Outside of getting those powers in our Terrible Twos, it would have been the worst age to gain them. And like Chronicle, Kick-Ass, Spider-Man and others, A Space For the Unbound knows this too. Finding your feet as an adult while finding your feet as a superhero is a terrible mix.
A Space For the Unbound starts innocently enough. You play Atma, a young lad who’s neither popular or unpopular, and just looking to graduate high school in ‘90s rural Indonesia. His girlfriend, Raya, however, is having a harder time of it. She’s a little on the kooky side, which has rubbed up the other students who rather she just conformed. She’s bullied, talked about behind her back, and generally ostracised.
After some initial adventures with Raya, and a few domestic chores, it becomes clear that something is off – beyond the bullying. Raya can tinker with reality, stopping Atma from falling from a tree, or gifting him cash out of thin air. She’s sensitive and deflects any questions about it, plus you’re her boyfriend, so you let it pass.
And you wouldn’t want to be a hypocrite, as you have a power too: you were given a magical red book when you were younger, which allows you to ‘Spacedive’ – a term for being able to jump into people’s subconscious and interact directly with their hopes, fears and wants. It’s a kind of dreamscape where every whim is manifested, as you push impulses out of the subconscious and into the conscious mind, encouraging their owners to face them. It’s a bit like a 16-bit game of Inception.
It’s a volatile status quo. Atma and Raya both hold hands and spend time in each other’s company, all while hiding powers from each other. As you would expect, it doesn’t last, as Raya begins to buckle under the pressure of her bullying, which in turn puts stress on the relationship. Raya’s mental health frays, and there’s only so much you can do to reassure her or hold her back.
There are mental health trigger warnings at the start of the game for a reason: if you have sensitivities to bullying, abuse and suicide, you might want to take your time or give this a miss. The disappointment is that you’d miss out on a sensitively crafted and imaginative tale.
A Space For the Unbound plays out in two-dimensions, in a lovingly recreated Indonesia. The pixel art here is gorgeous, with the ability to step up a notch when things get otherworldly. When combined with some slick animations and an audio design that challenges the visual design for MVP, then you have some memorable, beautifully orchestrated moments. The last third of the game in particular escalates to metaphysical heights and stays there.
The dialogue and story are expertly written too, managing to dodge the pitfall of writing for teens and sounding believable. We found ourselves chatting to everyone, as the cast of characters are a bunch of real oddballs. Again, that’s another pitfall dodged: everybody sounds different and authentic, rather than sounding like they tumbled from the same writer’s pen.
The writing’s not perfect, though. To our tastes, the pacing was off. The story in A Space For the Unbound meanders like a river, veering away from the narrative you care about (Atma and Raya), and towards other inconsequential plotlines and characters. At the start, it’s domestic and endearing, but after a few hours of chasing cats and ducks, or helping businesses succeed, you kind of want it to get to the point. By the end, we looked back and realised we hadn’t spent much time with Raya at all.
Again, an asterisk here, as the last act is a doozy. For all the meandering and oxbow lakes of the first and second act, the third act is a torrent. Like the culmination of a Final Fantasy game, A Space For the Unbound goes off the existential rails, and we were here for it. Should you find your interest waning after hours four or five, stick around. The story pays off and then some, delivering an emotional time-bomb that will send your empathies and plot-understanding careening into wildly different directions.
In gameplay terms, A Space For the Unbound is relatively simplistic. It’s a stripped back point-and-click adventure, locking you to a single two-dimensional plane. Every interactable element is telegraphed with an icon, so there’s almost no chance of missing the chance to press A and tinker with it. There are very few situations where you use items on locations, and even fewer where you use items on other items.
It’s perhaps too simple. A Space For the Unbound really, desperately wants you to reach its final third, so it does everything in its power to get you there. Characters hint at the answer when you’d already figured it out. Walls bar you from exploring too far. Often, the only things you can do are slot item A in lock B. It can get ridiculously obvious at times, and there were precious few moments where we had woken up and used our brains to figure out a puzzle.
As if in acknowledgment of this, A Space For the Unbound adds in some minigames for basic actions that you might pull off. Combat becomes a rush to press a sequence of buttons within a timeframe. Basically, it’s a Street Fighter combos against the clock. Then there are quizzes, some shape sorting and even basic algebra. They do the basic job of breaking up the rhythm – you’d be talking and running between locations without them – but they’re certainly not inspiring. We were more engrossed with the collect-’em-all bottle caps that litter the environment.
What this amounts to is a superb story that occasionally dips into the sublime, but doesn’t manage to clasp its fingers around your heart like To The Moon, Gone Home and other similar narrative adventures. A Space For the Unbound deeply wants to be in the same category, but its earliest moments are too wayward, too slow to generate momentum. Regardless, this is a rich yarn with a fantastic ending, so find some space for it if you can.
You can buy A Space For the Unbound from the Xbox Store