APFTU – A Place for the Unwilling is a game that would benefit from some ground rules before you go in.
Number one: APFTU – A Place for the Unwilling is a narrative adventure where it is fundamentally impossible to do everything. You will be handed umpteen missions and prompts for places to visit, but the little pocket watch in the bottom-left of the screen will tick down in real time, making the completion of every task unlikely. You have to accept this quickly. If you’re carrying a determination to complete every side-quest, like a seasoned Skyrim player, then you’re going to be panicked and disappointed.
Number two: no choice is easy, but every decision is important. It’s a dichotomy that can hurt. A constant barrage of choices will take aim at you, and there will be very few clues to whether one is correct, or more correct than the other. Yet they will all have consequences, their little butterfly wings flapping and leading you to one of ten different endings, and unlocking missions and characters that you would otherwise not have seen. The only way to survive in this environment is to take your feet from the river floor and let the current carry you along. You can’t hope to complete a ‘good’ playthrough. No such thing exists.
Number three: you’re going to have to abandon a lot of the comfiness that comes from modern games. APFTU – A Place for the Unwilling isn’t precisely unfriendly, but it is anachronistic, and it can rub you up the wrong way through its backwardness. The city (not named London, but blatantly London) is vast, and you will have nary a mapmarker or a sense of place when you first begin. Rather than sticking a pin in your map, quest-givers will tell you quest locations by their name, and it all feels like city navigation circa the 1990s. There’s no satellite navigation here. You’re working from paper maps and hoping you get there on time.
Yet, your character will move at snail’s pace, often much slower than the NPCs that toddle around next to you. Fast travel makes things slightly better, but it costs money and the option only arrives in the latter parts of the game. Getting to one end of the map – the frigging lighthouse, for example – can take you almost all of the in-game day. When the person you want isn’t there, and they absolutely should be (more on that in a moment), then the infuriation can boil up and froth over.
Number four, and the final ground-rule: you have to be prepared for APFTU – A Place for the Unwilling to be broken. Or, at least, with the pieces of its narrative jolted apart, like someone tripped while holding them. Most pieces are in place but, occasionally, something will happen that doesn’t quite line up. A character will talk to you as if they know you, but you’ve only just met them. A character asks to meet but doesn’t turn up. Characters assume you have done something, when you have specifically made the other choice earlier. It helps to create a Lynchian sense of what-the-fuckery, but there’s an argument that it’s also a bit shoddy for a narrative game, when narrative games are the least prone to bugs.
Okay, now that we’ve spent the opening half of the review laying ground rules, we can start talking about why APFTU – A Place for the Unwilling is actually rather good. We wished we had these ground rules in place before we started – they were monumental enough to delay us from playing APFTU – A Place for the Unwilling for longer than we should have. We might have enjoyed it that little bit more.
APFTU – A Place for the Unwilling starts disorientingly, and keeps going from there. Your childhood friend, Henry Allen, sends you a letter, asking you to keep watch of his mother and wife, and to manage his business. Then he commits suicide. Or gets murdered. It’s not clear, but the consequences are the same – you are wrapped up in his life rather than your own, and you need to decide what to do with it. Worst of all, you have twenty-one days to do whatever it is that you want to do, before the world ends.
This is the introduction to an emblematically difficult choice, right at the start of the game. Will you manage Henry’s business, or investigate his death? We can tell you now (ground rule number five), never take the business. It’s a tiresome game of comparing market prices in shops, so that you can sell from one to the other, in a bizarre take on an in-game economy.
Another hard choice follows: do you take the side of the friendly but mysterious mother, Dana, or do you help the weirdly disaffected widow, Juliet, as they war against each other? Don’t worry, both of the choices are valid, but they’re the starting pistol for future choices that spin off into missions, which in turn reveal characters who were once lost to a spasmodic ‘shadow’ state that seems to be cursing the world’s inhabitants.
And so you are bouncing from location to location in a sprawling map, unsure of whether you are moving in the right direction, and whether you will be able to crowbar the next mission into your day. Luckily, this state of utter bemusement is confined to just the first week: fast travel becomes easier, money becomes easier to get hold of, and you acclimatize to the map and its linchpins.
APFTU – A Place for the Unwilling has a fine knack for developing. The first week is horrible, a trampoline made to bounce you away. But when the second week hits in in-game terms, well, things start getting very good indeed. Masked miscreants appear. The prospect of a revolution hangs in the air. Murders punctuate your days. And then the true horrors kick in at week three, and you begin to understand that it was here you were meant to get to all along. You can even let the missions bypass you in week one and just see what happens. APFTU – A Place for the Unwilling has your back here.
Don’t be like us: push through the opening moments of APFTU – A Place for the Unwilling and abide by our ground rules, and you may well find the good stuff. Because there is a lot to love. Look at it one way, and APFTU – A Place for the Unwilling is a slice-of-life that has some fine socio-economic commentary to offer, showing a city where you can almost see the divide between rich and poor moving in real-time. Look at it another way, and it’s a detective mystery in a twisted children’s book, its seedy underbelly getting revealed day by day. Look at it another way, and it’s a choice-engine, complex in the number of moving parts. Pull one lever and you can see various narrative pistons move.
It took us some time to navigate the brambles, but APFTU – A Place for the Unwilling was worth the journey. It is not friendly or fast, and you could even say that it’s broken, at least in places. But there’s a noble aim here: to create a world where you couldn’t possibly do the right thing all the time, and you certainly can’t do everything. The world is too much for you, and that’s okay. Once we understood these simple rules, we were far more willing. This is a place to admire.
You can buy APFTU – A Place for the Unwilling from the Xbox Store