You know a VR game is good when you’re willing to throw yourself to the floor for it. At the ripe old age of 27, it’s far more uncomfortable for me to get up and down than it should be, but I ignored that pain that I definitely should see someone about for Unknightly because, frankly, I was having too much fun not to.
Developed by Portal Studios, Unknightly likes to think of itself as VR’s very own version of Thief and, though undeniably rough around the edges, it gets closer to that legacy than you might think. You play as a sneaky plunderer of medieval dungeons and towns, sticking to the shadows, nabbing loot from unsuspecting guards and getting a little stabby only when absolutely necessary.
The game works pretty much exactly like a ’90s-era stealth title. Whenever you stand in shadow, you’re completely invisible to the enemy AI unless they bump into you. Stray close to any light source, though, and you’ll expose yourself. Walk too quickly, meanwhile, and you’ll also create noise that guards will inspect. But you can use these elements to your advantage, too, throwing items to create noisy distractions, or snuffing out lights to dim the way forwards.
Features like these are all expected of a sneaking game, but it’s Portal Studios’ grasp of the physicality of VR that makes Unknightly an unexpected thrill. The game thrives off of player movement; keys are obtained only by daring yourself to lean in and snatch them from the backs of unsuspecting guards, which will have your heart thumping, and you’ll often throw yourself to the floor to take cover behind crates and barrels at the last moment.
It can be exhausting, but it also captures the childish joys of a make-believe playdate better than most. You might remember Thief as a scary game; I certainly remember holding my breath as stone-faced guards robotically stomped past me, swallowing air as I made a mad dash through the lights and cowering in a corner as enemies try to sniff me out. That fear is a special kind of thrill and it’s still here, only amplified in VR.
At one point I laid on my back, teeth sunk into my bottom lip as I inched away from an approaching guard, praying he didn’t stumble over my feet. In that moment, I was really there, lying on that dank stone path, and I felt alive. It only takes a few whacks with a sword to finish you off, so you’re constantly afraid of bumping into enemies. Fortunately you can save whenever you see fit, which staves off frustrations.
One brilliant addition to the formula is the ability to climb almost any surface using the tried and true mechanics seen in games like The Climb. In busy rooms, you might spot ceiling beams that allow you to slip by with much greater ease, or choose an ideal vantage point to pick off an exposed enemy with the recently-added bow and arrow.
Archery fits into the game’s Early Access build with ease. It’s not as satisfying to use for quick kills as the Assassin’s Creed-style wrist-mounted blade (which is a little too fun to stab people with), but it has other uses. Water arrows snuff out flames, for example, and noise arrows give you more options when you’re out of other items to toss. Crucially, there are plenty of armor-clad enemies that can’t be killed so easily, and ammo is limited, so you can’t make the game easy for yourself.
It’s the combination of tension and tools that gives Unknightly such a slick feeling. All that said, it doesn’t take much for it all to break down. Somewhat predictably, AI is Unknightly’s biggest hiccup right now. Guards struggle with anything other than sticking to their given patrol path or running straight at you with their swords out. At times I slipped by situations I definitely should have been seen in and at other moments guards suddenly seemed to come to the miraculous realization that I was in the next room. AI in stealth games is very, very hard to get right (just look at Budget Cuts), but I’d love to see Unknightly fix some of its glaring bugs in this area.
The game’s presentation could do with a bit of a tune-up, too. It’s not a compliment when I say Unknightly looks as much like the original Thief as it does play like it. Character models are like plastic mannequins and the labyrinthine dungeons consist of interchangable corridors and staircases. Your shadow and noise meters, meanwhile, are represented by fading yellow and blue colors respectively, which look a little amateur. There’s no doubt still a ways to go before the game’s full launch, so hopefully, some of this can be cleared up in the coming months.
Still, even with these hiccups, I’d happily recommend Unknightly to anyone interested in VR sneaking right now. Dogeared as it may be, there’s a thrilling set of stealth mechanics at the core that can root you inside your virtual character more than most games could ever hope to achieve. that alone is worth the price of entry.
Unknightly is available now in Early Access with Oculus Rift and HTC Vive support for $19.99. A full release date hasn’t yet been announced.