Unreal Life stuck with me. I knew when I saw the game, with its unique imagery, simple color palettes, and unexpected characters, that it would probably be one of the more unusual games I’d play this year. But I also didn’t expect it to be one of the most memorable, thanks to amazing pixel art and my new favorite stoplight.
Hal doesn’t know why she was lying by the side of the road. She doesn’t know why she can’t remember things and suddenly is unable to read. She also doesn’t know why she occasionally blacks out. But what she does know is that she needs to reunite with Miss Sakura, someone who is very important to her.
Fortunately, she isn’t alone. When she wakes by the side of the road, a wireless, AI traffic light named 195 is there. 195’s job is to watch over people and keep them safe, and she takes it upon herself to reunite Hal with Miss Sakura. She uses what little data she knows to guide Hal to where she things she saw her come from. However, the two together end up on a much more involved and wide-reaching journey together.
Now, there is something people should know going into Unreal Life. This is an otherworldly game, but one with very mature themes and dark situations. There’s some foreshadowing going on and other hints alluding to the situation. I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone, but suicide does come up.
With that, it handles many of these topics in a way I felt was rather respectful and seemed to understand the gravity of the situation. It addresses topics like death and depression in a way that shows how deeply people can be hurt. It also highlights the highs. We can tell Hal is a young woman who is going through something serious and potentially traumatic even as Unreal Life begins. We see people reach out to her. We watch as she reaches out to others. There’s growth and progression. So the game goes from, “That moss ball chef sure is kooky” to “I value you and your cooking, moss ball chef.”
Unreal Life also surprised me by having one of the best localizations I’ve read in 2020. When you head into a Japanese indie game that’s been translated into English, you never know what to expect. After all, a developer could have a tight budget or might not be able to find someone who’s able to capture the tone. But Unreal Life is perfect. It’s well suited to the experience and feels in-character. As a result, it makes not only helps us identify with our young protagonist, but manages to make an AI stoplight lovable. (I almost cried for that stoplight!) It makes a penguin train conductor and genius mouse engineer seem plausible.
But the story and its laudable localization are both only two parts that help pull people into Unreal Life and make this adventure such a standout. One is the artistic direction. Hako Life used pixels to create something hauntingly beautiful. So much so, I don’t think this is the only way this vision could have come to life. The intricacy behind the designs is incredible and helps to make the ordinary seem extraordinary.
Everything is simple, yet effective. So much so that even if you see characters or setpieces that would normally be out of place, it works because of the spritework, use of color, and ambiance Hako Life constructed. It all also means that when things do break, it becomes even more haunting and effective than it would have been had this been a 3D game or animated in a different way. It can be genuinely terrifying, even if it is a few words on a screen or a sudden color palette shift.
It also comes together because of this adventure game’s unusual mechanics. At its core, Unreal Life is a point-and-click adventure game with multiple endings. (It is also considerate enough to make a save right at the branching-off point for said endings, so you can easily see them all.) To find Miss Sakura and the truth about the situation at hand, you have to explore, talk to people and people-like-things, and solve puzzles. While this involves collecting data and finding the right items to make things happen, how you acquire that knowledge involves a unique memory system.
Hal can read the memories of things around her by touching them. She can then think about things or look back on those memories to help remind you of what’s going on. The earliest example involves touching a utility pole while looking for Hal’s lost key to find a crow took it from her when she was unconscious. You can compare these memories to the current time to do things like help you find items, see if switches need to be flipped, or find new paths. You also might need to fiddle with items you can touch to make it easier to find things.
But it’s important to note that even though there are dire circumstances and conditions, Unreal Life doesn’t rush you. This is a game that is succinct and not terribly long. (I was really playing around and taking my time, and I was done probably in about seven hours.) Yet even if you have to worry about, say, a fish in a dangerous situation that might die without Hal and 195’s help, you could still take your time dropping the first pieces along the floor to gradually lead a penguin employee to the place they need to be.
This is also a game that commits to its bit. Even though its setting is otherworldly, Hako Life made sure things made sense. As I mentioned earlier, Hal can’t read. So when she and 195 come upon a video game and decide to play together, anything that would have been text is instead completely illegible clubs of pixels. So when you play it, you’ll have no idea what you’re doing and have to wing it. It’s a fun nod and I appreciated what happened there.
Unreal Life is a special sort of adventure game. It’s hauntingly beautiful, with a story that is more touching than you might expect. Especially when some of its primary cast members are an amnesiac young woman, an AI traffic light, and a anthropomorphic penguin. But it’s very much a tale of personal growth and discovery, with the journey to the truth of the situation being an emotional and weighty one.
Unreal Life is available for the Nintendo Switch and PC.