A Space for the Unbound Review
An emotional lesson in learning to let go
Games that focus on real life seem exceedingly rare. Sure, we have lots of titles set in the modern day or those that recreate day-to-day activities. But how many of them truly romanticize the small, mundane, quietly beautiful parts of life? A Space for the Unbound is a rarity in this respect, authentically depicting a slice-of-life teen romance set in rural Indonesia - the sweeping supernatural mystery is just icing on the cake. This narrative indie shines in the small moments where characters grapple with childhood trauma, fractured familial relationships, and the weight of others' expectations. But, through all the hardship and pain in this ~10-hour adventure, the story always emphasizes the good things in life. The things worth living for. This makes A Space for the Unbound one of the most affirming and relatable experiences I've played for quite some time.
This 2D adventure follows two teens, Atma and Raya, through their last days in high school. One day the pair discover a set of supernatural abilities. Atma, the laid-back and dreamy player character, can ‘Spacedive' into others' subconscious minds where the scenery metaphorically depicts their inner psyche. For example, an anxious chef's mind is decorated like a cooking competition, and rewiring their brain can ‘solve' their mental anguish - think Psychonauts level of abstract. Meanwhile, the headstrong and sensitive Raya has a seemingly endless salvo of powers, from telekinesis to teleportation. As Raya uses her powers more often, reality begins to split slightly. Townsfolk's speech and movement begin to glitch like the Matrix, and a crack in the sky opens up day by day.
The first half of the game weaves these supernatural elements into an incredibly convincing day-in-a-life experience. Atma and Raya are hard not to love as we follow them on these intimate, sunny days playing games at the arcade, going to the cinema, and stroking oh so many street cats - all of which you can name individually.
Each chapter of the game has Atma and a partner exploring the town to unravel these mysterious occurrences. But since this is an adventure game at heart, there's a lot of backtracking through areas to pick up items, solve puzzles and help other characters with their (largely unrelated) problems. The backtracking never felt like an annoying hindrance, though, as a map makes navigation clear and the game smartly closes off areas in certain sections.
No two puzzles are the same, asking the player to think in different ways each time while jumping in and out of Spacedives. Some puzzles are just about pairing the correct items together to change the level's layout. Some puzzles might ask you to crack a code by investigating your surroundings. One of the hardest puzzles requires some low-level algebra to decipher what a couple of letters mean. They're mostly creative and can be solved with enough time - although the game doesn't offer much help if you are stuck. Puzzles are broken up often with light stealth sections and QTE events that add some variety to the playtime.
Plus, even when your fetch quests aren't directly linked to the main story, there was so much personality to all of the side characters and their problems that I never minded the detour. There's still an emotional throughline present in all of these side stories, even the more comedic ones like a man that tries to profit from the end of the world by selling crystals. Although many of these aren't directly related to the main ongoings, they're still tied thematically. Every time you Spacedive, you're confronted with a different personal problem, from school bullying to anxiety. As Atma, you need to re-jig a character's brain by showing their subconscious a way to move forward. A Space for the Unbound is a game about overcoming trauma by appreciating the beautiful ordinary parts of life, and this philosophy is felt in every corner of every pixel. Even if you don't realize this message until the end, this guiding belief makes the entire experience more cohesive and impactful throughout.
When you're not following the main quest line, you're free to explore the town at your own pace to chat with various characters and cross items off of your bucket list. There's plenty to do in your own time. Like competing in an arcade mini-game and finding a collection of bottle caps around town. I was constantly charmed by Unbound's focus on the small things that, in a way, are reminiscent of a summer holiday. You're unencumbered by any responsibilities in the same way these characters are. Instead of planning for their after-school years, Raya and Atma write a bucket list and decide to enjoy their last weeks of school. We're just here for the ride.
With this in mind, it's not hyperbole to call this Indonesian town the star of the show. Part of this comes from A Space for the Unbound's incredible presentation. It's rare to see a pixel art game that's this dense with detail and vibrantly colored. There are so many tiny aspects that are worth stopping to look at like the shopkeeper's shiny head, the way the dust shakes when you stop running, and the traffic that cuts through the foreground.
The soundtrack also deserves a special shoutout. It's abundantly energetic and occasionally really emotional. The best part about the music here is how replayable all of the lo-fi tracks are which helps with the backtracking through certain areas. The nostalgic chiptunes are right in line with the game's retro aesthetics and 90s pop culture references - Street Fighter II fans won't need to squint too hard to see the classic brawler represented here. One Spacedive even has you submitting evidence to a court while shouting “Objection!” with a pointed finger. This homage to the past gives the world an appropriately timeless quality as if everything here is cozily stuck in time. Just as Atma and Raya resist growing up and moving on, so does the world, and so do we by participating in this nostalgic trip.
Of course, a growing crack in the sky spells doom, so this sunny romp with friends can't last forever. The supernatural occurrences eventually take center stage, but I appreciate that these scenes don't exchange the heart of the story for an ‘end of the world' cliche. The otherworldly plotline is there to enhance the small, nuanced experiences that these characters go through. Think of Psychonauts once more. The emotional turmoil is simply turned into epic visual metaphors. The game's final, tear-jerking moments are so grand they'd fit into a JRPG, but the game's heart remains intact. All of the calamity and ruin is just an extension of real, organic emotions - and it works.