After years of silence, Unknown 9: Awakening re-emerges as a supernatural mash-up of Assassin’s Creed with Star Wars Force powers

By admin Mar10,2024

Since the summer of 2020, Unknown 9: Awakening has only existed as a 90-second cinematic teaser trailer. In it, a young girl called Haroona is chased through the narrow streets of Calcutta by a rabble of boys armed with sticks. It’s not clear why she’s attracted their ire, but as one moves to strike her, a shockwave pulses out from her small body, the world turns grey, and time slows down. As she deftly moves out of harm’s way, she turns back to look at her stunned onlookers, a confident smirk rising on her face.

It was a striking, if utterly ambiguous debut, and with talk of accompanying podcasts, books, comics and a web series also on the way to help build out this new world even further, it felt like developers Reflector Entertainment were really setting out to make a bold and ambitious first impression. But it’s now been four years since that trailer. The books, podcasts and comics have all come and gone, seemingly making little impression, and Awakening, the game aiming to pull this big, expanded universe together, has arguably slipped from both time and memory. Perhaps this will change with its newly-dated summer 2024 release window on the horizon, but having seen a small, hands-off slice of an early mission in the game at publisher Bandai Namco’s offices a couple of weeks ago, Awakening’s certainly got its work cut out for it.

A woman walks through a jungle ruin in Unknown 9: Awakening
Image credit: Bandai Namco Entertainment

While my demo handlers were careful to cut around any of the major story beats, focusing mostly on a mix of stealth and melee combat sequences, this is a game that looks like Tomb Raider, and plays like Assassin’s Creed with some Star Wars Force powers thrown in for good measure. Haroona is still the game’s protagonist, but she’s now a grown woman, portrayed by The Witcher’s Anya “Yennifer” Chalotra. I could chuck a lot of proper nouns at you to explain the game’s setup, but the long and short of it is this: there are two groups fighting to control an ancient source of knowledge that give the immortal Unknown 9 their specific power, and Haroona is out for revenge against the baddies who killed her friend and mentor.

In short, it’s Templars, Assassins and the Isu all over again, just in a slightly different wrapper, which perhaps isn’t a surprise when you consider Reflector was founded by former Assassin’s Creed developers, and whose office is a mere stone’s throw away from Ubisoft Montreal. But there is perhaps one saving grace that gives Unknown 9 its own sense of identity. Haroona isn’t just able to manipulate time now that’s she’s all grown up. She can also ‘step’ into the minds and bodies of her enemies, allowing her to briefly take control of them.

The first thing we’re shown is how this possession trick can let her use their guns, bayonets and battering ram-like charge attacks to help thin the crowds of an enemy jungle camp. A timer bar slowly counts down how long Haroona can stay in control of her quarry, but we’re told there won’t be any level barriers or other artificial gates to prevent who she can and can’t ‘step’ into. Snipers, foot soldiers and large bruisers are all fair game here, and eventually you’ll accrue enough ‘Step Tokens’ to chain up to three possessions together, jumping from one body to the next as long as they’re in your line of sight, and building your strength and attack power as you go. It’s a neat concept – though one whose impact has been dulled somewhat by the similarly puzzle-driven murder bullet chains of the just-announced Children Of The Sun.

A woman rushes a guard during combat in Unknown 9: Awakening
Image credit: Bandai Namco Entertainment

A man slams the ground in Unknown 9: Awakening

A soldier aims their gun at another guard in Unknown 9: Awakening

Image credit: Bandai Namco Entertainment

Naturally, once guards start shooting each other, your foes will be on edge, their raised suspicions causing them to stray from their patrol paths to investigate the disturbance. Alas, they won’t start fighting among themselves, Reflector’s head of production Jean-Francois Deschamps tells me later over a video call, but Haroona has several tricks available to her to keep out of trouble. If she has another available Step Token, for example, she could simply jump into an enemy and walk them as far away from her as possible, clearing the way to scamper to the next patch of tall pampas grass. Yep, there’s going to be a lot of hiding in bushes and using her special ‘peeking’ power to highlight and tag nearby enemies and objects of interest in Awakening, though the next skill we’re shown is perhaps a bit more novel.

In addition to stepping, Haroona can also become invisible to make a quick getaway (and seemingly right in the middle of combat, too, without enemies becoming any the wiser or jolting you back into full view). This is one of many so-called ‘Umbric’ powers Haroona’s able to use, and they have their own specific magic bar to govern their use in combat. Another one is a Force-like push that can send guards cascading backwards into flaming lanterns and other obstacles, and yes, you do have the option to punt them over cliffs and ledges to their doom. There’s also the equivalent of a Force pull to yank them forwards, too, allowing you to close the gap on enemies to give them a swift punch to the jaw, interrupt their attack patterns, or bring them tumbling down off ledges and staircases so they can fight on your level. Melee attacks are important for replenishing your limited number of Step Tokens, though Deschamps stresses that every situation can technically be handled entirely through stealth, without having to resort to out and out violence.

A woman yanks the soul of a guard forwards in combat in Unknown 9: Awakening
Image credit: Bandai Namco Entertainment

A close-up of Haroona's face in Unknown 9: Awakening

Forbidden fruit

In asking Deschamps about why this idea of fighting to acquire hidden, ancient knowledge is so enduring within games and other media, he said it’s his personal view that, “as a species, we’re afraid of what we don’t know, so by default wanting to know more is a way to have more security on the decisions we take and the things we believe. But you also cannot know everything. It’s impossible.

“There’s also that famous sentence that knowledge is power, which is kind of true, too. So if you add up all those things, in the history of our specices, knowledge is what you should seek, whatever it is, whatever level it is, knowledge is where it’s at. […] It’s a powerful idea. It’s an idea that’s really open, and an idea you can scale and express as you wish.”

Image credit: Bandai Namco Entertainment

With our demo handlers playing on the easiest Story difficulty mode, it was, admittedly, a little hard to gauge just how challenging or satisfying these potential stealth puzzles would be in practice. Chaining Step combos to culminate in using a muscular tank lad’s AOE ground pound to take out multiple goons at once certainly has its appeal, as did yanking out people’s literal souls from their spines while performing a silent takedown. Enemies had the wherewithal to attack all at once, too, rather than circling politely and waiting their turn, but shunting them back into fiery torches looked quite flat and lacking in impact. Likewise, as an observer, firing enemy guns in third person also gave the impression that they had all the heft of a toy pellet gun.

What we were shown outside of combat didn’t raise the pulse much either. While Haroona’s glowing bracelets will alert her to special ‘scribing’ tears in the fabric of reality that can increase her health and magic powers, they aren’t visible to the naked eye, so she’ll need to hunt down through a combination of environmental cues and her peek ability. In our demo, this was simply a ‘follow the glowing energy lines’ kind of affair, requiring little thought or input from the player. I’d hope that later scribing areas are a bit more puzzle-driven to prevent them from turning into tedious hide and seek trails, though when asked if the game had many Tomb Raider or Uncharted-style puzzles further down the line, the answer we were given was merely “some” rather than lots.

Still, with the end of our demo culminating in a sequence with Haroona freeing a honking great zeppelin from the middle of a rainforest, I’m hopeful that we’ll at least get to see some interesting places along the way. We’re told this zeppelin will serve as our main hub between missions in Unknown 9, carrying us across the globe in linear setpieces as Haroona follows the trail of the big bad. There’s also mention that its story will delve into Ashoka mythology rather than the traditional western cannon, but there’s no denying that its 1912 setting does have an air of Indiana Jones about it, too.

A woman peers through a blue portal in reality to highlight enemies in Unknown 9: Awakening
Image credit: Bandai Namco Entertainment

Whether it will all be enough to make enough of an impact, though, remains to be seen. For a game that’s been in development since the studio’s founding in 2016, Unknown 9 verges on feeling too little too late in some respects, and not enough of its own thing to really set it apart from the bigger, flashier blockbusters it’s clearly taken much of its inspiration from. Yes, what we saw was taken from very early on in the game, and probably amounted to no more than 30 minutes. But even this no longer feels as striking as that initial teaser trailer did all those years ago.

To their credit, in talking to Deschamps about the challenges the game faces in today’s environment, he says one of their goals was to really think hard about “what does it mean to make a game with smaller teams?” He himself came from Ubisoft, and while “we do have our learnings, things we liked, [and] things we liked a bit less that we wanted to either adapt or change,” Reflector are fundamentally a much more modest outfit by comparison, even after being acquired by Bandai Namco shortly after the game was first shown four years ago. He also acknowledges that “what players want from a game is evolving even faster than making games themselves, so it’s always a challenge to be able to keep up to speed.” Ultimately, it’s a challenge that’s “really exciting” to try and meet as a studio, he tells us, though given everything that’s happened to the industry over the last 12 months, with studios big and small having to down-size or outright shut up shop after failing to make back their development costs, I do worry how long that excitement will last when Unknown 9 launches later this summer.

By admin

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