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It's hard to describe the kind of game that Unreal Life is. Going by strict genre conventions and mechanics, it's very much an adventure game, but describing it that way feels limiting. This isn't necessarily because the game does things super differently or even well, but rather Unreal Life is bursting with creative ambition that it's hard not to admire, even when it is actively frustrating to play.
Unreal Life tells the story of Hal, a young woman who wakes up on the side of the street with very limited memory and cognitive function. No only can she not really remember who she is, but she has lost skills like the ability to read. If not for a sentient AI residing within a traffic light, she'd be completely lost as to who she is or what to do.
If this sounds strange, buckle up, because Unreal Life only gets weirder from here. While exploring your immediate surroundings, Hal discovers she also has a special ability that allows her to see the memories of inanimate objects. Using this strange power and with some guidance from the traffic light, Hal sets off on a journey to recover her memories and understand the world she lives in.
The journey Hal goes on has no shortage of strange and surreal encounters: a train station operated by penguins, a water station that functions via giant turtles, a restaurant owned and operated by a tiny moss ball, the list goes on and on. The world Hal is in feels very strange and as she starts to recover her memories she starts to realize that things are not quite all they seem.
What is for certain though is that all of Unreal Life's strange environments and scenes unfold in on a gorgeous pixel art canvas that use glow lighting, glitch effects, and a bold color palette to tremendous effect. This is a game I could not stop taking screenshots of or just pausing to soak in. It just looks so cool and stylish, both in terms of what it chooses to present and how it does so.
The driving force of Unreal Life is definitely its story, but it's also a game that gates progress by way of puzzles. Many of these challenges are relatively trivial but there are a few key sequences in Unreal Life where it puts up a some roadblocks that are simply annoying to solve.
Sometimes this is because the puzzles are oddly circuitous and don't allow for shortcuts, even though the logic is easy to intuit. At others, some of the color choices for certain mechanics make it hard to parse exactly which object or person you are supposed to interact with in particular. In these times where you're left to either flounder or trial-and-error your way through, Unreal Life is its dullest. Thankfully, it looks brilliant at all times and there are only a handful of sections where the puzzles become onerous.
The bottom line
By the end of Unreal Life, I'm not sure I was able to embrace the narrative payoff, but I almost don't even care. The kind of journey the game takes you on and the way it's presented makes it truly feel one-of-a-kind, to the point that even at its lowest points it is easy to appreciate.