One of the greatest difficulties of reviewing video games is having to be a negative Nancy sometimes. Games take a lot of time and effort to make, often under highly stressful circumstances. Years of work goes into making them and receiving news that your game isn’t all that good can be very disheartening.
That said, failures are not something to be ashamed of. They’re learning experiences that are essential to personal and professional growth. If you’ve never made mistakes, you’ve never done anything at all. While The Unholy Society isn’t a failure, it’s definitely an obstacle towards something greater.
From Polish developer Cat-astrophe Games, The Unholy Society is a game firmly rooted in nostalgia. “Let’s face it”, the studio exclaims on its website, “we’re a bunch of 90s kids.” The game draws inspiration from everything that “fits into the categories of ‘iconic’ and ‘pop culture’.” As promised, there are a lot of references in the game’s script. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that around a fifth of its dialogue carries a reference to something.
Don’t worry, there are more of these
This is where the first sign of The Unholy Society’s identity as an obstacle lies. I love a good reference as much as the next person – we on the spectrum exhale them instead of carbon dioxide – but there’s a point of oversaturation that the game has claimed squatter’s rights to. Being reminded of something else is fantastic in a work of fantasy is fine, provided that the material stands on its own.
The Unholy Society doesn’t carry enough playtime to stand on its own two feet; my own time with the game was just over six hours across two playthroughs. During that time I was more inclined to remember that Monty Python and the Holy Grail is, although hardly Python’s best film, a very funny film. It’s definitely one of those movies that if you haven’t seen, you’ve probably heard every funny line in it already. I still get a kick out of it when I watch it though. I went to a themed screening once, as the Famous Historian who gets brutally murdered. It was fun.
The Unholy Society’s pocket-sized playtime was populated by its second tick in the obstacle box: Its gameplay. The game is a simple 2D platformer, littered with the occasional environmental puzzle and combat section. As a loose cannon (but a damn fine exorcist) in the game’s wacky world, you’ll do battle against a variety of spirits from the dimension of the damned. The system is as simple as its counterpart: Reveal symbols in a combat screen reminiscent of a ‘chicken shoot’ game and tag them in different orders to unleash different attacks. Get your enemy’s health to zero before they do the same to yours and you win.
Unfortunately, not all combat is this green
The underlying issue with both of these gameplay systems, however short the game itself may be is that it’s too simple. There’s very little reason to truly invest yourself in the game, because there’s almost no meaningful complexity to shake things up. You can’t just shake the shake to make a shake. Milk and flavouring are the base components, but all the best shakes have berries in them. We know this because of previous failures in shaking shakes. Somebody, somewhere, has tried to make a chocolate shake with a Vegemite touch. That was a learning experience, and the lesson was “the Vegemite milkshake was bad, but I remember the Vegemite milkshake”.
The Unholy Society, put simply, isn’t risky enough. It’s not altogether a failure, because it’s too safe and simple to be anything at all. There’s plenty of non-referential writing to be found, and a lot of it is engaging…but that engagement isn’t quite deep enough. Even in a title as unapologetically cheesy as this one – you do have the pope on speed dial – there needs to be something that sets it apart. You won’t know if it’s the new berry shake or the new Vegemite surprise until people take a sip. Chocolate is the best flavour, but only out of the basic ones.
The Unholy Society is a relatively inoffensive short romp. There’s nothing altogether good or bad about it, which earns it its mark as an obstacle to greatness and not a failure. I’m not privy to the developer’s intents but if they were just throwing things together for fun, they certainly didn’t fail. After all, time enjoyed is never time wasted.
Reviewed on Switch // Review code supplied by publisher