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Unsighted is Polygon’s No. 10 game of 2021 Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

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Unsighted is an exquisite fight for survival

The clock is ticking

Nicole Clark (she/her) is a culture editor at Polygon, and a critic covering internet culture, video games, books, and TV, with work in the NY Times, Vice, and Catapult.

A time constraint is a daring choice for a Metroidvania. It’s something I thought I would hate in a game, especially as a player who gets lost easily. But time is at the heart of Unsighted, making material scarcity a core concern. It motivated me to keep slashing and parrying through the world’s many layered maps, fighting for the survival of my people and laying the stage for exquisite exploration and discovery throughout Unsighted’s evocative and deadly world.

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For our 2021 game of the year coverage, Polygon is celebrating our top 10 video games with a collection of essays. You can see our full Top 50 list here. Throughout December, we’ll also be looking back on the year with special videos, essays, and more!

In Unsighted, automatons are starving for a gem substance, Anima, that works as their life force. When it runs out, automatons face a fate worse than death: they turn into a mindless enemy called the “unsighted,” attacking the friends and family they once lived with. In the wake of a war between humans and automatons, you play as Alma, a combat automaton hell bent on solving the crisis and rescuing her fallen friends — members of her battle team, who had been defending the automatons in war.

Every character Alma speaks with has a countdown of hours left to live, from the shopkeepers in Gear Village to NPCs across the game. As their counters approach zero, automatons start to deteriorate — looking unwell when you interact with them and eventually turning unsighted. But Alma is also on the clock: Every time she dies, a pause screen displays her remaining in-game hours to live, which translates to how much time a player has left to beat the game. The only way to save an automaton from becoming unsighted is by giving them a single-use item, Meteor Dust, which extends their life by 24 in-game hours. It also can be used to extend Alma’s life.

The difficult tradeoff of who to save and who to leave behind is at the heart of Unsighted, and it’s a core feature of the world’s responsiveness. It’s tempting to try to save everyone, but you simply can’t. Initially, I gave Meteor Dust to an older cog farmer named Teresa, who had just a few hours left, but it extended her time in the game only marginally — I wasn’t able to find enough additional Meteor Dust to save her. I returned to find her storefront obliterated; a few screens over, her cracked suit sat in a pile of rubble. Not only had I failed her, I now had less for myself, and less time to solve the Anima crisis for everyone.

Alma stands in front of a puzzle in Unsighted, a game with a retro pixel aesthetic. The area the player is in has a moody blue-and-green color palette. Image: Studio Pixel Punk/Humble Games

I was forced to take a mercenary approach, awarding Meteor Dust to Samuel who makes chips for the game’s Nier: Automata-like upgrade system. I needed his services in order to survive. This is just one juncture where the game threw me into a moral limbo. If Alma’s counter dips below 100 hours, an NPC will offer to murder other characters for you, giving you their Anima. These tradeoffs — what you do for Anima, and who you give Meteor Dust to — are a startling reminder of how scarcity can force us to view others through the lens of utility. Avoiding these heartbreaking decisions became a potent incentive to get better faster, explore more intelligently, gain new upgrade skills, and dig into the map to find more Meteor Dust.

In a world where every second counts, there’s a harsh incentive to try new ideas, and less time to throw yourself at a path that isn’t working. Unsighted’s world has three meticulously interconnected layers full of little treasures: There are lush forests, icy aquariums, and complex skyways with tangles of railing. The aim is to collect five Meteor Shards in order to build a powerful weapon, but the game doesn’t require you to get them in any particular order. Keys are universal, so I used them to open new region gates, curious to break open new areas. I mapped out elevators, emerging where overpowered enemies tried to kill me. As I learned to defend myself, I began laying waste to all the barriers that were meant to keep me in.

The game’s brilliant, Zelda-like dungeons are tightly designed around themes, and my growing toolkit gave me multiple ways of solving puzzles. I used my ice grenade gun and ice shuriken, toggled switches with a grapple hook or the slash of a knife. These dungeons were filled with enemy classes that were clearly previously friendly automatons who had gone unsighted — many of them were the same types of automatons that lived in Gear Village. I tackled platforming challenges and referred to the map to find shortcuts to reach the Meteor Shard bosses — and I used these new skills to fight unsighted automatons, many of whom were fallen members of my team.

If the pressure of countdowns sounds like too much, the game can also be played in exploration mode, which pauses all characters’ timers, including Alma’s. (It’s available any time in the option menu, along with a suite of difficulty modifiers.) This is especially useful if you’ve gotten lost, or if you find the game’s isometric combat difficult, like I did at the start. Combat can be challenging if you aren’t used to parry-based mechanics. Alma can only get a few swings in before her stamina bar is depleted, but a “perfect” parry rewards players with a critical hit, which makes combat feel like a satisfying rhythm game.

Unsighted characters looking at the graves of fallen friends Image: Studio Pixel Punk/Humble Games, Humble Bundle

As you explore, you encounter character backstories told through logs and flashbacks. They reveal more of Unsighted’s lore, like the backstory to the Anima crisis. But these flashbacks are most affecting when they reveal Alma’s own origin story and the stories of her teammates, or the tension between her hotheaded desire to save everyone and the awkward battle training with her team. What emerges is a love story between queer, humanoid robots, as Alma tracks down the battle axe-wielding automaton Raquel — desperate to save her life, even at the expense of her own.

Unsighted is phenomenal for so many reasons, especially its gorgeous landscapes and brilliant puzzle design. But it’s the sense of urgency — with the game’s countdown pushing me to get back up when the going got rough — and how it fed back into the game’s interconnected map that makes Unsighted a must-play. Whether it’s for pure survival or love, there are always reasons to forge a new path.