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Unexplored 2 is the most innovative adventure game I've played in years

Unexplored 2
(Image credit: Ludomotion)

Unexplored 2 comes so close to nailing the sense of adventure I got the first time I read Lord of the Rings. It's technically a roguelike like Dead Cells or Hades, but it's much easier to think of Unexplored 2 as an adventure simulator. Instead of being trapped in a dungeon that reassembles itself into new configurations each time I die, I'm set loose into an expansive and enchanting fantasy world that is constantly in a state of flux. To survive, I have to forage, fight, and talk my way through a gauntlet of different challenges. While it doesn't replicate the fun social dynamics of playing Dungeons & Dragons with a group of pals, it often feels like I'm playing a tabletop campaign uniquely crafted just for me.

That Unexplored 2 channels Lord of the Rings is definitely not an accident. I play as the Wayfarer, a pilgrim from a clan tasked with the responsibility of carrying a powerful artifact, the Staff of Yendor, across forests, mountains, and deserts to a sacred place called the Prime Elemental Forge. Bonus points if you already predicted this: My mission is to destroy it. If I fail, the nefarious Empire and its vast armies will eventually steal it and use its powerful magic to aid in their global conquest.

So far I've failed a lot. This is still a roguelike after all.

There and back again 

Unexplored 2 has wormed its way into my brain like few other games this year.

Wes once described the original Unexplored as "quietly revolutionary" and the same can be said of Unexplored 2—except for very different and much more ambitious reasons. Unexplored 2 asks "What if Frodo and the Fellowship all died on their way to Mordor?" and then builds a complex simulation to play out that scenario again and again.

Unlike other roguelikes, my attempts to destroy the Staff of Yendor don't happen in a vacuum. I still have to make a new character each time I die, but the world doesn't reset and randomize itself. Each death moves the clock forward a few years until the next Wayfarer rises up to complete this sacred task. During those intervening years, I watch in fast-forward as the Empire's influence creeps across the continent, corrupting the land and making the journey more dangerous. Alliances between clans strengthen or dissolve, and new quests replace old ones. Though the overworld map stays the same, the layout, enemies, and challenges found in each individual area I explore change. The bandits that killed me outside a mysterious cave had moved on by the time my second Wayfarer took up the Staff.

When it makes sense, though, certain things persist between deaths. I got two of my Wayfarers killed trying to explore that cave once the bandits had moved on because a villager told me there was supposedly a magical sword hidden inside. When I eventually succeeded in retrieving it, I felt very aware of the sacrifices my two previous characters had made. When this character (inevitably) dies, that powerful sword won't magically reappear back in the cave. I'm actually not entirely sure what will happen to it, and I'm scared to find out.

Unexplored 2

The overworld map is littered with places to see, but they'll change with each death. (Image credit: Ludomotion)

It's common for roguelikes to soften the loss of a character by having some measure of power carry forward, but I've never played one that does it in such an enthralling way. It's so much more meaningful than slowly accruing passive upgrades that make me a bit more survivable. I'm walking in the literal footsteps of my previous characters—sometimes even finishing up their half-completed quests. Unexplored 2's subtitle, The Wayfarer's Legacy, is much more than just a cool name. 

There's a lot that can happen on the road. Traveling from one location to the next is rife with perils that have a chance to slowly whittle my character down in all sorts of nasty ways and preparation and caution are as necessary as a backpack full of HP-restoring waybread. 

If I take too much damage in a fight I can become wounded and suffer a days-long penalty to attack damage, total HP, and movement speed. Or maybe I get caught out in a nasty rainstorm and am now soaked, making my attacks much slower. Items like cloaks and cold-weather coats can negate some of these negative effects, but others are the result of plain bad luck.

(Image credit: Ludomotion)

Just like in D&D, Unexplored 2 understands that it's way more fun (and tense) when there's different shades of success and failure.

When camping out in the wilderness for the night, I have to choose whether or not to light a fire and risk giving my presence away to potential enemies or sleeping in the cold dark, which will slowly sap my Hope stat. Lose too much Hope and my Wayfarer will lose some permanent skills, making the journey even harder. Unexplored 2 is constantly pushing choices on me, and the longer my character survives the higher the stakes get.

That's still just a smidgen of all the different systems at play, here. There's a whole risk-reward mechanic where I can use the Staff of Yendor's powerful magics, but doing so will alert the Empire to my presence (just like Frodo using the One Ring). Most NPCs can be befriended and will share secrets and rumors, and if I find rare artifacts or books I can donate them to scholars in exchange for useful knowledge of the surrounding country.

There's not much of a central story to Unexplored 2, but that's because all of these complicated systems interlock in ways that organically creates a new one with each Wayfarer I play. Even the skill check system tells little stories. It's frequently used to determine everything from whether or not I smooth talk a plant spirit into letting me pass through its territory to deciphering ancient texts, and success is partially influenced by my Wayfarer's skills.

Instead of rolling a dice and succeeding or failing at a challenge, though, I draw tokens from a random assortment that each progresses the challenge in some specific way. If I grab a "Take my time" token, that'll add several Victory tokens to the pool, increasing my odds of success, but time will pass. If I grab a "Rush" token, I'll achieve victory but also trigger potentially harmful side effects. Each time I draw one of these tokens little bits of text describe my attempts to complete this task.

I love this system so very much. Just like in D&D, Unexplored 2 understands that it's way more fun (and tense) when there's different shades of success and failure. It's like having my own personal dungeon master narrating my adventure for me.

With so much to do (and so many ways to die) Unexplored 2 has wormed its way into my brain like few other games this year. I woke up this morning at 5am because I wanted to play it so badly. Do you know how childish that feels? 

Even so, I don't feel pressured to immediately buy into its Early Access on the Epic Games Store. There's a lot to see and do, but there's also a lot of bugs and unfinished bits too. The worst is the enemy AI. Combat can still be fun, but just as often enemies will run around like headless chickens or refuse to attack or get stuck on level geometry. I have a glitch that duplicates my Ring of Haste each time I die (I now run very fast), and I've experienced nearly half a dozen soft locks when travelling to a new area. Thankfully, Unexplored 2 has a generous autosave system so I never actually lost any progress. Glitches might be frequent, but they've never succeeded in sabotaging the fun I'm having. It's all pretty easy to ignore. The way Unexplored 2 transforms the roguelike dungeon crawl into an epic road trip is just too damn exciting.

Unexplored 2 is now available on the Epic Games Store.

Steven enjoys nothing more than a long grind, which is precisely why his specialty is on investigative feature reporting on China's PC games scene, weird stories that upset his parents, and MMOs. He's Canadian but can't ice skate. Embarrassing.