The Fall Part 2: Unbound review

2 weeks ago by Steven T. Wright

A snarl of cliches and overused tropes, but something here still shines.

Content warning: This review contains spoilers for the original The Fall as well as discussion of sexual assault. 

At its best, science fiction has a unique ability to delve into the ubiquitous anxieties that define our modern age, from the looming automation of labor to our ever-increasing reliance on tech peddled by massive corporations. At its worst, however, sci-fi can untether itself from its human subjects and dive into the murky waters of ceaseless theorizing and absurd navel-gazing, with characters that spout empty rhetoric at each other like a pale imitation of a Socratic dialogue.

Over the Moon Games’ The Fall Part 2: Unbound flips between these two extremes so readily that I still struggle to reconcile the experience in my head. Ultimately, the result is an ambitious but lackluster follow-up to one of my favorite hidden gems that stunned me with its clever writing just a little less than it frustrated me with its opaque puzzles.

As its somewhat-garbled title implies, Unbound is the long-awaited sequel to 2014’s The Fall, and, due to its focus on narrative above all else, it relies heavily on your knowledge of its predecessor. The original followed in the cast-iron steps of an A.I.-controlled combat suit marked A.R.I.D. that crashes onto an unknown planet.

After determining that the pilot within it is unconscious but alive, the A.I. slowly begins to uncover loopholes in its basic Asimovian rules-processing to progress and find help for its human master. (An early example: A.R.I.D. cannot use her weapons without her pilot’s approval, so she sets up a remote gun to fire at her so she can activate her combat capabilities in self-defense.)

At the game’s end, after making her way through an abandoned facility full of derelict robots of varying personalities, she realizes that her pilot isn’t within her at all - rather, she’s a faulty A.I. consigned to the trash heap for displaying a spark of sentience, and her constant struggle with her own code is the proof of that.

Unbound begins where the original ended, with the newly-lowercase “Arid” accepting her self-sufficiency and endeavoring to use it to escape her apparent prison. There’s just one problem: the facility has crunched her body into pieces, and an interloper is using hostile software to block her from reclaiming it, shunting her into the tendrils of the network that runs all over the planet. And though you’ll spend an hour or two leaping and blasting your way through this Tron-like visualization of electronic nodes, chasing down “The User’s” signal, it’s only when you track it to a dead-end that the true conceit of Unbound reveals itself. In order to find the User, you must inhabit the physical bodies of other robots and work with them to solve point-and-click-style puzzles, all the while adhering to their rigid programming - or subverting it for your own ends.

The first automaton you encounter in this fashion is by far my favorite - a dedicated butler-bot stuck in an endless cycle of serving its long-dead masters. As you might expect, the puzzles in this sequence rely on making a mess of things when the Butler’s head is turned, or using fuzzy logic to convince it to divert from its usual path of applying lipstick on its former mistress’s dessicated face. While a few conundrums in the early game had me scratching my head a little more than I wanted, the sharp banter between the no-nonsense Arid and the hopelessly-wry Butler helped smooth it out - in particular, the mountain of unused teacups in the master’s study made for some amusing sight gags.

As the game wore on, however, whatever traces of humor and whimsy that had helped alleviate some of Unbound’s basic design issues began to fall away, replaced by the usual deck of ponderous sci-fi “thought experiments” first tapped by the likes of Clarke and Dick. But while the questions of robotic identity and personhood that the game bombards you with occasionally hit home, they’re locked behind a wall of puzzles that slowly slide from classic LucasArts to the likes of latter King’s Quest in their level of sheer incomprehensibility. Even when I found myself enthralled by the ideas on display, taking ten minutes to divine the solutions to these increasingly-obscure riddles would sap the story of its momentum, ejecting me from its orbit once more.

The second chapter in this presumed trilogy might look and play like a third-person platformer - a janky one, at least - but it ultimately shares far more in common with one of gaming’s most beleaguered genres: the point-and-click adventure. And while I count myself among the dwindling fans of that approach - in particular the Monkey Island series - towards the end of the game, I became more and more convinced that Unbound unconsciously serves as an exhibition of the excesses of that genre.

More than once, I was certain that I had solved a dilemma with an alternate method, only to find myself stymied by the game’s limited imagination. For example, early on, the game challenges you to put something valuable to the Butler down a garbage chute, so that he will allow you to go down into the basement to retrieve it. Well, I had quite a time trying to pick the right “valuable” item in a mansion filled to the brim with expensive artifacts, before an errant misclick accidentally solved the puzzle for me. While the far-fetched solution made me laugh, the apparent “logic” behind it escapes me even now.

As the game progresses, it relies increasingly on the stuff of sci-fi cliches - crucified robotic husks, malevolent viruses, roving botnets. Still, to its credit, it was only after the introduction of the fetid Ur-cliche of the “sex worker robot” that the game truly started to lose me. While recent works have managed to handle the obvious foibles of this dusty construct with a bit of grace - Blade Runner 2049, Her - it takes Unbound only a half-an-hour or so to force you as a player to engage in a non-consensual sexual encounter with a traumatized soldier in order to procure his uniform. Though the game takes great pains to paint this as a Bad Thing, a token of Arid’s ruthless drive to use both humans and robots on her path to reclaiming her body, as the unavoidable “solution” to a fictional scenario dreamed up by a game designer, it comes off as an incredible failure of both taste and imagination.

Beneath The Fall Part 2: Unbound's thick crust of tired sci-fi tropes, inexact combat, and arcane riddles lies the complex tale of a robot tangling with the meaning of empathy, and what it means to live in the world. Though Unbound falls well short of its fantastic predecessor, those who connect to the philosophical underpinnings of the tale it tells may find a glimmer of brilliance beneath the muck. For the rest of us, there’s probably at least one Philip K. Dick novel you haven’t read - it might frustrate you, but at least it won’t hinder your progress quite as much as Unbound, short of stapling the pages together.

Verdict: Maybe