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artwork featuring Unsighted’s cast of automaton characters Image: Studio Pixel Punk/Humble Games

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Unsighted works wonders with its brutal time system

A Zelda-like world with Metroidvania trappings in which time is always running out

At the center of Arcadia lies the city’s wounded heart. A great meteor that crash-landed some time ago gave consciousness to the automatons of the world, but now, humans have it under lock and key. Without access to its precious resources, the majority of the city’s robots have become “unsighted” — mindless killers, robbed of their sensory control. It won’t be long before those that remain join them.

A top-down action adventure game with slick, plucky pixel art whose flat perspective only occasionally frustrates, Unsighted starts out in a gloomily familiar underground lab. In a kind of Metroid reversal, you play the specimen Alma, an experimental robot and Arcadia’s last hope. From here, you’ll travel to various corners of a large, labyrinthine map, in search of five meteor shards. Each one lies at the very top or bottom of some kind of sprawling dungeon.

For every generic cave or industrial area, there’s another, more interesting locale: an old museum or derelict aquarium, hinting at life before the human-made apocalypse. One dungeon introduces verticality, allowing you to fall down into rooms below, while another makes use of switches that you can flick on and off to shift areas between light and dark. Each dungeon also comes with a unique piece of equipment that unlocks new mechanics (and with which you can loop back to earlier areas to find shortcuts and secrets). In a familiar format for anyone who’s played a 2D Zelda before, you’ll collect the usual boomerang, hookshot, and bomb equivalents. Despite being well-worn territory, Unsighted consistently introduces enough complexity to keep its assortment of rock-pushing and switch-flipping puzzles fresh.

The protagonist battles atop a flying platform in Unsighted Image: Studio Pixel Punk/Humble Games

Combat is another familiar affair: stamina gauge, devastating parries, and lots of dash-and-rolls. The visually spectacular boss at the end of each dungeon is where the real challenge lies. You often have to contend with complex sequences of attack, along with a variety of smaller enemies in between. Bosses will fill the screen with lasers and projectiles, forcing you to find tiny safe spaces in the arena to wait out bombardment, or push on to deflect incoming fire with perfectly timed parries. And these are generous, satisfying counterattacks, letting you quickly blitz through the toughest of bosses once you’ve familiarized yourself with the patterns.

With so many interlocking systems, Unsighted subscribes to a flashy kind of maximalism. You can unlock three refillable health potions fairly early on, use crafting blueprints to create temporary buffs, and stack upgrade chips for various effects (like life leeching and increased invulnerability frames). Add to this a laundry list of mechanics, a Soulslike corpse-running and spawn system, Minecraft-style crafting, a combo system, and even a day/night cycle, and things begin to feel a bit cumbersome. By the end, I was left wondering if there was really a need for half of the things included here. As you hit the late game, both environments and related puzzle formulae feel as though they’re being stretched to their limits, with things like slippery ice floors and shifting wind direction making platforming needlessly finicky.

The most important thing to know is that time is running out in Arcadia. Many games will use such expressions, but few commit to the concept the way Unsighted does. Every townsperson found in the game’s hub area, every NPC met in the rain-drenched, toxic-gooped streets and highways, comes with a personal timer. Even your time is limited. As the in-game hours slip away, the people of Arcadia slowly begin to fray and fritter, and unlike the mood-related Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, where an apocalyptic moon looms ever large, there’s no winding the clock back in Unsighted.

The inventory screen in Unsighted, which allows for chip upgrades and item swapping Image: Studio Pixel Punk/Humble Games

There are moments in the game, several hours in, where you’ll be struck with genuine fear. An hour deep into a dungeon, while you’re searching for the final MacGuffin, the game will suddenly let you know that somebody is about to expire. There are genuine consequences at play here. Shopkeepers disappear from town. Important NPCs vanish. Even your fairylike companion risks expiration, taking your ability to upgrade or unlock additional chips with them to the grave. In its later hours, Unsighted becomes a delicate game of risk management in which you decide who is worth saving. You begin to see those around you as instruments — and you spend your limited resources to keep those souls you deem most important, of most value, around for just a little longer.

Unsighted takes a while to get to this mode of time-induced panic. It was only later on, in the final stages, that I really felt the doomsday clock hanging above my head. But the game does effectively build up to these moments. I hadn’t been playing long when I was abandoned by my extremely helpful dog companion after refusing it naptime — a hint of the losses to come. It was there I realized that, unlike a lot of games, Unsighted isn’t bluffing: time waits for no one.

For some, these temporal limits will no doubt be the cause of much stress and anxiety, which is why many will appreciate that the game allows you to toggle them on or off at any time. Personally, I feel something is lost without the aggressive march of time, which adds a genuine sense of finitude to this post-apocalyptic tale. Without this extra dimension, Unsighted becomes a duller and more quantifiable thing — just another Zelda-like or Metroidvania that time is likely to forget.

Unsighted is at its best when its mechanics line up with its style and ethos, which is all about survival and spirited defiance. Its breezy story, much of it told through flashbacks, rarely overloads you with info — like everything here, it all ticks along relentlessly. It’s hard not to appreciate Unsighted’s scrappy, melodramatic nature, as well as its interest in the differing perspective of automatons. Here you play not as a human hero, but as the specimen; the experimental robot. Things are tough and you’ll be tested, but change doesn’t happen overnight.

Unsighted was released on Sept. 30 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed on Steam using a download code provided by Humble Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.