Necromancers are one of the fascinating tropes in fantasy. Overcoming mortality itself raises all kinds of questions, and zombies, and exploring the life of a necromancer and roleplaying as one in any game that gives the players the option, is usually a popular choice.

The Unliving is a rogue-lite action RPG developed by RocketBrush Studio and published by Team17 Digital. We play as a necromancer, raising the dead as we kill soldiers and bring destruction in our path, and coming back to life and trying again once we are defeated. The Unliving has a great art style and visual effects, and a decent soundtrack, but with all of the potential in its premise, it fails to deliver an engaging and fun gameplay experience.

Dialogue Overlay of The Unliving
We get to appreciate the character arts in the dialogue overlay.

I was very excited when I first saw The Unliving. Being a necromancer that comes back to life over and over again, creates the perfect setting for a rogue-lite game. Some of the popular games in the genre have interesting lore about how we get to come back to life and start over after defeat, but a necromancer’s immortality is the perfect fit for the loop in the game. I was expecting to love The Unliving, but after a few hours, I realized I wasn’t having any fun. I kept dying and coming back, hoping to find something interesting in my next run, but it never happened.

First, let’s talk about what The Unliving is good at. The pixel art and visual effects look amazing. They create a dark atmosphere and a world on the brink of destruction. Attacking soldiers defending their home against the hordes of undead, and raising huge monsters to siege their defenses looks epic. The necromancy magic that we wield and their visual effects look menacing, and the character art and monster designs fit into the world perfectly.

A giant undead in front of the army of zombies and skeletons
This was an epic fight, to watch. The gameplay was the same, even throughout this giant siege fight at the end of the first zone.

The Unliving has a decent story as well, but like most other rogue-lites, the story is not the focus. We had just come back to life, and we have lost our memory. We know how to raise the dead and use magic, but for the rest, we have to explore deep in the territory of the living. We slowly gather bits and pieces to realize what went wrong, and what to do next. I wish I could’ve learned more about the story of the world, but the gameplay didn’t give me any incentive to continue playing.

I felt like there was something missing from The Unliving‘s gameplay. I didn’t know what it was at first, but after giving it some time and thinking about this review, I think I realized what was wrong. The gameplay seems decent at first. You control your character and the undead army separately. You can shoot spells and use your scythe in melee like other ARPGs, and you can sacrifice your undead troops for various effects, kind of like special abilities.

Level up screen in the unliving
There are multiple level up systems, and we get to choose abilities during the run as well. But none of them seemed exciting or impactful.

There are four main types of undead troops. Melee, ranged, tank, and caster. Sacrificing each troop type would result in specific effects. But you also need to spend your life force to sacrifice your troops, making resource management very important during your run. I needed to keep my troops healthy, watch my life force, let my auto attack energy replenish, and sacrifice my troops only when they were low on health and they were in a position where their ability was more effective. If this all sounds overly complicated, it’s because it is. The Unliving suffers from feature creep, without even considering the upgrades and abilities that we get once we progress through the game.

I soon realized the best strategy was to keep my undead army as healthy as possible and swarm the enemy with higher numbers. I would get upgrades to my troops and abilities in my runs, but they didn’t seem to be doing anything impactful. This was the main thing that put me off from The Unliving. I’m a huge fan of the roguelike genre, and what I like best about them, is that we get to try different strategies and builds with each attempt, and they all feel different and unique. The Unliving though, not only doesn’t offer any meaningful change to your build and strategy with each upgrade, but it also doesn’t offer new environments for us to explore. The world, and the enemies’ positions and numbers are the same each run. This must be the first time I wish a game had procedural generation.

Shopping zone in the Unliving
We get to these shops once in a while, but the best purchase is usually just extra life and survivability.

With all of its potential, unfortunately, The Unliving fails to be an engaging and fun roguelike. As great as the game looks, and as promising as the concept behind it might be, without an addicting and fun gameplay loop from the very beginning, The Unliving fails to keep the player around. I might’ve gotten a hold of it and found enjoyment in the game if I stuck around and played for a few more hours, but games in this genre can’t afford to have a weak opening experience. Roguelikes are about repetition, and if the loop isn’t fun from the beginning, it doesn’t matter how much better it gets later on.

Nima played The Unliving on PC with a review code.

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