In addition to our main Game of the Year Awards 2021, each member of the PC Gamer team is shining a spotlight on a game they loved this year. We'll post new staff picks, alongside our main awards, throughout the rest of the month.
Unbeatable is, hands down, the rawest, coolest thing I've seen all year. It's also not coming out until 2023 at the earliest, with the anime-blasted rhythm adventure having only just wrapped its Kickstarter campaign back in Spring. But to ease the agonising wait, developer D-Cell released two demos—first a simple Arcade Mix of some of the game's songs, then the elusive, more fully formed White Label.
Readers, White Label might be the hardest a game demo has punched in years.
Flatly, I've never seen a developer commit to an aesthetic as hard as D-Cell. Unbeatable came out swinging with the gold standard of Kickstarter trailers, an effortlessly slick tone piece that gives you an immediate rundown of what the game is without ever dropping its Studio Trigger-inspired animated flair.
Unbeatable, as it exists in White Label right now, is a pretty lean thing. A series of rhythm tracks to pummel your gamepad against, with a very loose narrative framing, including a tutorial that gives a good sense of what the more adventure gamey side of the final game might look like. There's only one stage to speak of, a train station platform that explodes in a riot of noise and light with every track.
That noise is almost overwhelming at first. The screen whips from left to right, throwing notes at you from all sides, camera pulling in and out and jerking at odd angles with each fresh verse. But then, like all the best rhythm games, all that extra noise bleeds away until it's just you and the beat. Your eyes and ears filter out everything but the thumping rhythm and searing white notes—but when the camera pulls right in and tilts just so for a long two-track chord, you feel like the coolest person alive.
As a demo, White Label is phenomenal. It gets to the punch quickly, shows you what Unbeatable is all about, and has enough tracks to keep you chasing high scores while waiting for the finished game. But White Label isn't just a demo—over the past year, it's been consistently buffed up with new tracks, new modes, and entire new story segments.
At this point, Unbeatable's had crossovers songs with No Straight Roads, NOISZ STΔRLIVHT and Rhythm Doctor. D-Cell is trickling out bespoke, extra extra hard modes for the game's tracks. There's been a stunning live concert featuring an anime-rock cover of Sayonara Wild Hearts. A few months back, I fired up White Label to find that the short narrative intro had been turned into an opening crawl that could've been pulled straight outta Scott Pilgrim.
Despite these additions, White Label is still awfully light on any direct plot. Instead, what little narrative moments we get focus instead on our absolute burnout leading lass Beat. A short opening gives us a taste of Unbeatable's proposed open world, letting us potter around a street and chat to bandmates who are, let's say, a little pissed at how late we are to practice.
But besides a short epilogue, most of White Label's scene-setting takes place with short vignettes before and after each track. We get an intimate look at who Beat is, talking over her anxieties and her relationship to others, herself, and her music. Every track is given context within her life—the funky sampled beats of Proper Rhythm calling to miserable piano lessons, the heavy riffs of Waiting reflecting a lifelong aversion to punctuality.
It's a promise that there's substance beyond the style, and I'm now genuinely excited to join Beat on this absurd adventure through a world where music is illegal and we do crimes. The final game promises to give us a whole city to explore with surrounding countryside, an open-ended adventure with shops and stations and streets to explore, a full day/night cycle, and plenty of locals with the mandatory videogame errands to help run.
I'm hopeful it'll be packed with the same grounded, earnest heart we've seen from White Label's short vignettes. But even if that demo is more style than substance, that style is all I need to keep hitting repeat on Unbeatable's killer playlist.
White Label has taken on a life of its own, and as an absolutely free demo, you'd be doing yourself a massive disservice not to check out this bleeding cool rhythm demo. But ultimately it doesn't even matter how much new stuff gets added to White Label, when I know I'm going to keep racking up the hours in pursuit of getting that perfect run on Waiting.