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Unholy Preview – It’s Giving Mother

An ambitious and strange new indie horror

Dorothea sits quietly on a bench in a non-descript park as the afternoon sun hangs lazily in the sky. Her hand is bandaged and irritated but it’s the least of her concerns right now, surrounded as she is by monuments to the recent death of her young son. Other mothers, happier ones, sit nearby on their own bench, watching their children play and idly gossiping about Dorothea. “Is that her?” they ask with no real concern for volume, like they want you to know they know. A makeshift shrine with low burning candles has been set up, the framed picture of her lost son outshone by the delicately placed tributes to the local church, itself made manifest in the world by the looming, warped building that towers over the neighbourhood as a constant reminder – much like those other mothers, they’re watching and they know.

This was our introduction to the world of Unholy, an ambitious new indie horror title from developer Duality Games. Our Unholy game preview included three short, discreet segments of the game that represented the various stages available in the full release— the reality-based Real World, the In-Between that warps the real world setting, and the Unholy World. You play as a young mother whose son was recently killed in a fire that did untold damage to The Spring of Eternity, a massive religious commune that your family has been a part of for some time. While the particulars were loose, the premise of the game is that Dorothea is approached by a mysterious woman who promises that her son can be returned to her if she can traverse the worlds, in turn uncovering the secrets of the church and facing innumerable horrors. This portion of the game is now available on Steam but you can read on for our Unholy demo impressions below.

Unholy has a thing for masks

It’s a solid premise, riffing on the reality bending of Silent Hill and even Twin Peaks at times as the sense of unease in the real world bleeds into the abject horror of the Unholy. Played from a first-person perspective peppered with cinematic cutscenes, Unholy’s toolbox seems immediately familiar. Walk around environments, interact with objects and read notes, find a certain thing to progress the level, flick the lights on and off. These systems are genre staples, but Unholy has a shockingly strong grasp on both art direction and technical performance, making this opening act a strange delight to explore. The commune is a fully realised space, pulling on brutalist architecture and lavish religious imagery, both of which are fused with a bevy of small, mundane details in the apartment you explore to give the world a grounded feel.

After poking and prodding around the place, you’ll eventually be ripped into the In-Between, a grey, washed out version of the same space you were just inhabiting. In here things get more explicitly spooky and less interesting, the visual filter dulling the best of the game’s presentation. A ghostly apparition of your son taunts you as you chase him through the apartment complex; he asks why you won’t play with him, a solitary children’s toy rolls out of a seemingly empty space, you find a torch, you get the gist. There’s potential in this In-Between but the demo did little to move the needle on it, instead leaving me thrilled when I reached the end of it and encountered the mysterious woman again and Unholy took on a whole new level of interesting.

It seems The Spring of Eternity has a problem with self-flagellation and a really bad case of mommy issues. We weren’t given the full picture but the church has been bent to the will of an omnipotent holy mother whose mission to purge impurity through a cleansing fire has manifest as the Unholy, a world of wonderfully deranged horrors. This space feels like the true heart of Duality Games’ vision for Unholy, a lavish homage to metal aesthetics complete with burning pyres, war imagery and cultish, masked warriors. To navigate this world, Dorothea is given a mask of her own, and along with her son’s slingshot, Unholy switches mechanical genres on a dime.

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Haunted slingshot rules

The passive exploration of the previous worlds long gone, Unholy becomes a stealth action experience, like a humble Dishonored in many ways. Your mask allows you to engage with the world in different ways, applying visual filters that highlight puzzles and interactive objects for example. There will be more masks available in the final build but we weren’t able to see any of them just yet. Alongside the mask, Dorothea can interact with objects and enemies via her slingshot, a children’s toy that warps into a – and I cannot explain this well enough – very Xbox 360-era looking version of itself with gnarled tips and over-designed goodness.

It’s supremely silly but in an endearing way, doubled down on by the ammo – your emotions. Dorothea can find ammo littered around the world, represented by Fear, Anger, Sadness, and Desire, each of which have different impacts on the world when fired. Need to short circuit an enemy spotlight? Pop off some Anger and watch its electrical charge overheat the pesky beam. A patrolling guard blocking your path to the next puzzles? Sling some sadness in his path and create a smoke screen to allow you to move through unnoticed. It’s delightful, a steamroller-level representation of theme through mechanic that allows Unholy to differentiate itself from the horror pack by turning the experience into something weirdly refreshing.

The demo was rather short, about twenty minutes all up if you know where you’re going, but Unholy has left me deeply intrigued about its potential. The In-Between could do with some life, and only time will tell if its exploration of organised religion and grief will prove to be insightful or not, but even failing its lofty narrative ambitions, I imagine this will prove to be a fun enough time. Its aesthetic work is hugely impressive for an independent team and the addition of stealth and combat mechanics give it a unique vibe in this space. If I had one sincere hope, it’s that the looming, torturous mother figure we’re chasing in the narrative winds up being a twisted version of Dorothea, because that would just be metal as fuck.

Unholy launches July 20, 2023 on PC. You can check out the demo now.

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Written By James Wood

One part pretentious academic and one part goofy dickhead, James is often found defending strange games and frowning at the popular ones, but he's happy to play just about everything in between. An unbridled love for FromSoftware's pantheon, a keen eye for vibes first experiences, and an insistence on the Oxford comma have marked his time in the industry.

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