As I approached the last hours of A Space for the Unbound I started to dread writing this review. Sometimes I get to review a game completely ignorant of its reputation, but here I knew it was already beloved by many, and 8 hours into this 10 hour game I just wasn’t feeling it.
It’s pretty much impossible for those last two hours to completely save A Space for the Unbound, but they come very close. I wouldn’t say I hated or even disliked this game before the finale, but I was bored by large swathes of it.
There are two sides to this 2D pixel-art adventure game. One side is the intriguing, consistently weird mystery story that plays around with amnesia, time travel, magic, and consistently hints at some dark themes. The other side is a simple slice-of-life experience where you help the villagers of a small town with their odd, menial problems.
It reminds me of something like the Yakuza series, where the main missions are deeply serious and dramatic, but the side quests are mostly lighthearted and comedic. In Yakuza, the dramatic and comedic sides of the game enhance each other, developing protagonist Kiryu and the city he inhabits.
The problem with A Space for the Unbound is that the two sides don’t enhance each other in the same way.
You play as Atma, a boy in high school with a penchant for forgetfulness (he forgets who his girlfriend is early on) and falling asleep (with a dream that he consistently returns to). His first dream shows him meeting up with a friend named Nirmala to help her write a fairytale-like story, but then tragedy strikes and he wakes up at his school desk.
From there Atma and his girlfriend Raya decide to write down a bucket list in his red notebook. It’s a list of silly goals for them to accomplish before graduation—“pet the fluffiest animal”, “eat a Black Forest Gateaux”, etc. That same notebook is featured in his dream and gives Atma a mysterious power called Spacedive, which allows him to jump into the minds of certain characters.
For a while, this is the game’s dichotomy—weird unexplained magic powers and everyday mundanity. This manifests mostly with someone in town having some kind of problem, which you can only solve by Spacediving and using items and dialogue to help them along. Occasionally, usually at the end of one of the game’s five chapters, some wild shit happens to remind you that there’s more to Atma’s magic powers, more to his dreams, and more to the major characters in the town.
These teases simply aren’t enough though, and it causes this really rough friction between the mystery and the slice-of-life elements. The twisty mystery bits of A Space for the Unbound are really intriguing, even very early on, and I found myself desperately wanting to know what was really going on. That made me increasingly bitter when the game sent me down a long string of quests involving making a cake, helping a martial arts teacher reconnect with his students, or getting cats out of trees.
All of these sections are reasonably well-done. The 2D pixel art is colorful and evocative, the puzzles are creative and fun to solve, and the writing is solid, even for the smaller characters. Regardless, it all drags on and on, feeling longer because you want to get to the juicy bits you know are coming.
It doesn’t help that whenever there is some kind of combat or action, the game utilizes two kinds of quick time events—a series of button inputs with a timer, or a bar slider where you have to time your button presses. You do these two QTEs so often that it gets extremely grating after a while, and it made me wish for a proper combat system or the ability to skip it all entirely.
The end result is that A Space for the Unbound doesn’t feel like a small town slice-of-life story with magical elements. It feels more like an intriguing magical mystery with a massive amount of annoying filler. It’s really hard to not get angry or bored with all of the diversions, and I spent a lot of the game wishing it was half as long and twice as focused on its core cast.
Still, when I hit that final stretch and the story started coming alive it was hard to deny how heartfelt and powerful it was. It was really effective, but also bittersweet, because I knew if I didn’t spend so much of the game counting the minutes I probably wouldn’t have been bawling my eyes out by the end.
It’s a stretch to say I think A Space for the Unbound is worth playing. I think some people will fall in love with all of it and think I’m crazy. Others will hate it even more than I did and never make it to the best parts. All I can say is that, in the end, even with my frustrations, I’m glad I played it, and it makes me excited for whatever developer Mojiken does next.