A Space for the Unbound review — teenage romance video game where fantasy and reality blur

A Space for the Unbound hurries for no one. The game’s opening moments ask nothing more of you than to press a single button to keep a flow of text moving as a child recounts a fairytale to a teenager called Atma. A little while later, you are thrust forward in time to the 1990s and given free rein to explore an Indonesian town rendered in evocative 2D pixel art. Playing as Atma, you collect bottlecaps and pet cats and solve puzzles by combining items in true adventure game fashion. Early on, you meet a municipal worker who can barely keep his eyes open, such is the apparent sleepiness of this place — and indeed the easy-going pace of the game.

Described as a “slice-of-life adventure” on digital store Steam, A Space for the Unbound is part of a wave of games that focus on everyday living, albeit with greater narrative drive than life simulators such as The Sims. It sits alongside recent indie successes A Short Hike and Bugsnax and one of 2022’s best games, Citizen Sleeper, which offered a dystopian sci-fi twist on the cosy genre. These games respond to a desire for mood and atmosphere, the longing simply to inhabit a virtual world rather than upend it.

A Space for the Unbound excels in this regard. Inspired by the game director’s Indonesian upbringing and Makoto Shinkai’s anime films, such as 2016’s Your Name, it displays a pastoral view, with grass swaying in the foreground and clouds curling in the sky. Like Shinkai’s films, it also features a prominent romance, Atma in a relationship with his classmate Raya. The pair, on the cusp of high-school graduation, devise a wishlist for the school holidays. However, a wrinkle appears in this idyllic set-up. It turns out that the teenage sweethearts have supernatural powers: Raya a set of abilities that can alter the nature of reality; Atma a magical book that lets him dive inside people’s hearts to fix their problems.

A story with a pleasingly slippery approach to reality, fantasy and metaphor thus reveals itself. As Atma, you must navigate these planes of perception, sometimes delving two or three layers deep into characters’ psyches, as if playing an anime version of Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception. This fondness for exploring physical manifestations of the mind, not to mention the game’s emphasis on teenage life, also recalls the landmark 2016 Japanese role-playing game Persona 5. However, A Space for the Unbound is less irreverent than that classic. It is both stylistically and tonally more straightforward, big on sentimentality and sometimes too didactic in its depiction of mental health. This is the risk in presenting the mind as a video game puzzle to be solved. Such simplification undercuts the thematic heart of the game: the way young Raya grapples with trauma.

Elsewhere, though, A Space for the Unbound delights in its interactive surprises. Occasional battles resemble a turn-based Street Fighter 2 while objection-filled courtroom scenes recall Ace Attorney. These satisfyingly break up the otherwise exploratory and puzzle-based gameplay.

Towards the end of A Space for the Unbound, when the stakes and fate of some characters build to a well-constructed pay-off, I thought not of Shinkai’s films but of Studio Ghibli’s 1988 tear-jerker Grave of the Fireflies. Like that film, it is a game with an unshakeable sense of place about young misfits who live on both the literal and figurative hinterland of community. It is also surprisingly heavy. A Space for the Unbound doesn’t quite live up to this forebear but, if you give it your time, you will be transported to a captivating world framed by skies of unending blue.

Available now for PC, Mac, PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S and Nintendo Switch

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