Review of “Unfinished – An Artist’s Lament”

Disclaimer: I am the developer of this game. Which makes it a conflict of interest that I would write a review. But with the expected lack of written scored reviews elsewhere, I felt it best to write something as unbiased as possible to make sure people know what they would be getting into should they buy the game. It also acts as a release for me, a psychological exercise after releasing my second game, having doubts about it. In the meantime, there are a variety of preview posts and playthrough videos online that I encourage you to check out.

“Unfinished – An Artist’s Lament” starts (after a minute-long cutscene of the main character being drawn) with a stick figure in a white empty level. Rotating the camera, you see a blue pencil drawing, slowly moving away from you. With nothing else to do, you move towards the pencil. As you get closer, the perspective looks odd, especially when you rotate the camera and look at it from a different angle. A thought bubble and audio prompt suggest something about a wall: after moving around the wall you see that the pencil was just a flat texture on a large wall that merged with the rest of the white background, and that the wall hid what looks like a more interesting space of old paper making up a level to explore.

In a way this speaks to what you are getting into with “Unfinished.” There’s worthwhile game and story to find here, but most people would likely give up in frustration before even thinking of going around the wall. Even then, those who stay might be disappointed with their reward.

This is a platforming game, but relies of exploration enough that calling it an “adventure” game might be more appropriate. At the start, you can’t jump or run, only walk. Soon you find a small drawing of boots with springs on them, soon after a drawing of running shoes, giving you the much desired ability to jump and run. There are no clues of where these hidden abilities are in the level, they aren’t far from where you start, but it’s easy to get lost in exploring the rest of the fairly large levels. And there is no prompt about how to turn on these abilities, only by accidently turning on the pause menu will you find a written list of controls that explain how to put them on. The initial build of “Unfinished” can easily frustrate most players in giving up within the first few minutes, making for a poor impression. It’s clear that the developer tried to improve the game by adding rare visual prompts in thought bubbles that help hint at what to do next, but even then it isn’t enough.

The most beautiful level of the game, and the only level with color in it.

The most beautiful level of the game, and the only level with color in it.

If you can get about halfway through the first level, you get used to how to bring up new abilities and the style of the gameplay, already learning how to jump and run. From there the game is a little more fun: you also gain abilities to fly, punch throw specific paper walls, see paths to follow and move paper-clip-boxes of paper. The fun comes in combining these abilities, as each is mapped to either the head, body or legs. You can fly (or rather, “hover”) and run at the same time to get across a large level in seconds, jump and move boxes to put them on top of each other to get to higher ground. These are simple mechanics, but satisfying.

It’s a shame the game couldn’t have been more. There’s only 5 levels to the game, 2 of which have no real platforming, and the entire game can be beaten in well under an hour. All the same, most players wouldn’t want to play the game much longer anyway. The story feels real but also pretentious, and doesn’t have much of a satisfying conclusion (at least from the perspective of the artist, “Sketch’s” conclusion is ok even if rendered in a really ugly animated cutscene). The game is almost entirely in black-and-white, supposedly to save time or money for the developer. This isn’t a pretty game, and the color scheme makes it difficult to play.

There could have been so much more to the game. Look at games like “The Unfinished Swan” or “The Magic Circle” for better ways to tell a story of unfinished work. “The Unfinished Swan” slowly built up parts of the world and had a simple mechanic to make it feel like you were doing it. Why not have the pencil draw more things in the world? It feels like the game was simplified to a fault, but still complex enough in gameplay mechanics to wonder what the point of playing is.

At least the music is serviceable. The only element not created by the one-man development team, the original tracks give some personality to Sketch as a character and provide emotion in an otherwise boring world. Sketch himself is cute, and his animation is improved slightly and more dynamic than the developer’s previous game “Drew and the Floating Labyrinth,” but without much detail in the character it makes one wonder why bother with time-consuming 2D animation at all for such a small game?  The menus look ugly, and like “Drew” insist on going back to the main menu every time a level is beat (the menu does have some environment detail and changes slightly in between levels to enhance the story, but not enough to be significant).

Indeed, the only real improvement this makes from “Drew and the Floating Labyrinth” is that there are options to invert the camera (but only during gameplay, not in the main menu). And technically, the game tries to give more hints then the obtuse puzzle discovery of “Drew.” At only 5 levels, it doesn’t overstay its welcome like “Drew” did. But there isn’t any real payoff in gameplay, visuals or story to make it a strong recommendation, and in those aspects “Drew” feels like a stronger game. With a handful of bugs and ugly menu design, it still feels too unfinished.

At least the trailer looked cool.

5.5 / 10.0

UPDATE (a day later): The game has since been updated slightly, adding optional control prompts at the top of the screen, plus menu animations, and a couple bugs are fixed. The main menu outside gameplay still looks terrible, and the “magnet” body ability to move objects is still wonky, but these improvements do help to make the game playable. Really, the game being significantly better would only be from starting from scratch. 6.0 / 10.0

Ouch, I was harsh on myself, but we’ll see if other people find it worth playing. I’ve gotten huge mixed responses from people so far, my closest friends saying I shouldn’t release it, others being more excited for this then for “Drew.” I do plan to fix “Unfinished” ‘s small handful of bugs and improve the menu, and maybe add more prompts to make the controls less obtuse, but under current obligations I cannot guarantee updates anytime soon. Similarly, I tried updating “Drew” to Unity 5 with the result of crashing my computer, any further updates to it would require a downgrade, and it’s difficult to justify right now. These are poor excuses, I’m sorry.