January 18, 2023

Andreas Betsche

A Space for the Unbound is a pixel-art adventure that brings 90s Indonesia to life

January 18, 2023 | Andreas Betsche

At Virtual SEA, we often talk about how games from the region can make Southeast Asian cultures, daily life, history, and more virtually experienceable. Rarely has this assumption been as accurate as with A Space for the Unbound.

The pixel-art adventure by successful studio Mojiken and publishers Toge Productions/Chorus Worldwide sets a statement with exceptional determination and loving attention to detail that games with a regional focus are not only possible but also offer an extraordinary experience.

At first, everything seems to be going well in Atma’s life…

A Space for the Unbound is a story that follows the lives of Atma and Raya, a high school couple who are trying to navigate through life, love, and teenage angst. The story isn’t a typical teen drama but makes it clear right from the start that supernatural forces are also at work here. With the help of young Nirmala, his literary protégé, Atma discovers that, with a magical book, he can delve into people’s minds where their deepest fears manifest, the so-called space dive. Equipped with this extraordinary power, Atma tries to help the people around him, ultimately trying to avert a more significant threat to the village. Although the game initially appears to be a typical feel-good adventure, it soon becomes clear that it has a much more sinister undertone, with a catastrophe looming on the horizon.

… with his girlfriend, Raya…

Mojiken skillfully succeeds in depicting the atmosphere of the 90s in Indonesia without slipping into a dry history lesson, instead focussing on the characters and their daily struggles. In the 1990s, Indonesia experienced significant political and economic changes as the country transitioned from authoritarian rule to democracy. There was civil unrest and economic turmoil during this transition, but many Indonesians remained optimistic about the future. The economy was growing rapidly until the Asian financial crisis hit, leading to a decline in economic growth and instability. This balance of cheerfulness and worried future describes the game’s atmosphere very well.

… but soon dark clouds will gather…

However, A Space for the Unbound is never lamenting or lecturing, and even players unfamiliar with Indonesian history should be able to follow the game well. The strength of the story lies less in a believable yet nostalgic representation of the era (with only a few hints of actual events) and in its amiable narrative, the development of the characters, and the slight pinch of magical realism that draws players in, whatever their background might be.

Gameplay-wise, at first, we explore the 2D world, talk to the characters and admire the pretty, slightly animated pixel landscapes that make you want to stop and take a screenshot every time. My goodness, almost every artwork in A Space for the Unbound is a minimal work of art! They depict scenes and landscapes from the developers’ home area with small details like food stalls and references to the pop culture of the 90s, underlaid with an arcade-style soundtrack, giving the feeling of revelling in the authors’ memories.

When “space diving” into people’s minds, Atma has to solve puzzles in order to conquer their fears.

From time to time, Atma has to delve into the residents’ world of thought and solve puzzles that are often creative but rarely difficult to solve. The level of difficulty and complexity increases with advancing playing time but rarely hinders the flow of the game and offers a successful change from the otherwise more dialogue-heavy gameplay.

A change in the gameplay is also the combat system of A Space for the Unbound but unfortunately, an element that feels oddly foreign to the rest. Although the duels allude to the fights in arcade classics such as Street Fighter, they are ultimately nothing more than the most straightforward quick-time events that accumulate unpleasantly, especially towards the end.

The combat system, while a nice reference, feels a bit out of place.

But that in no way clouds the overall experience and the story, which remains gripping and surprising to the end. Even if some of the dialogues have become too extensive, one can assume a particular epic nature of the plot, which at first glance seems so down-to-earth but gets enough room to unfold over the surprisingly long playing time of 9-10 hours.

After 8 years of development, to which the quarrels with the former publisher PQube certainly also contributed, Mojiken presents us with their magnum opus here. While the studio’s previous games (When The Past Was Around, She & The Light Bearer) were respectable indie darlings, A Space for The Unbound shows that they are among the best, narratively and artistically, what the Southeast Asia region offers.

The developers are proud of their origins and don’t hide their cultural roots.

Sure, the uninspired fights and the occasionally trivial dialogues could have used a little more fine-tuning, but they hardly disturb the overall picture. Because the true mastery of the studio is shown in love for detail and the courage to put together a partly autobiographical, partly fantastic work of this scope and quality. Anyone who likes a gripping story, lovable characters, fantasy and mythology, and fresh scenarios should play A Space for the Unbound (oh, and yes, a certain weakness for cats can’t hurt either…).

A Space for the Unbound is available for PC on Steam, Nintendo Switch, Xbox, and PlayStation (Release: 19 January 2023). This review is based on a free review copy for PC provided by the publisher.

Andreas Betsche

Andreas Betsche founded Virtual SEA in early 2016 after researching Cambodian mobile games for his Master’s thesis. He has a background in Southeast Asia studies and has worked and lived in Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Since he has been actively playing games since the early 90s, combing both worlds in Virtual SEA brought together both of his passions.

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