A Space For The Unbound review: a supernatural teen romance with a wonderful sense of time and place
Indonesian studio Mojiken have been making games for years. Most of them are less than an hour long. They’re short, punchy adventures and cover everything from digital fortune tellers, violin-playing owl-men, and poetic folktales about potato-shaped forest creatures.
A Space For The Unbound is Mojiken’s first ‘big’ release in that sense, clocking in at around nine-ish hours. What begins as a YA coming-of-age tale about a small-town romance quickly gains remarkable momentum, and suddenly you’re dealing with supernatural teens trying to desperately stop a world-ending calamity. Part sci-fi drama, part high school romance, A Space For The Unbound manages to have incredible weight and grandeur while also being poignant, sweet, and honest at the same time. It’s a triumph.
A Space For The Unbound takes place in a small town in rural Indonesia during the 90s and follows a boy named Atma who, like all teens, is trying to figure out what to do with his life after he leaves school. Atma is a bit of a loveable airhead, not really bothered with what class is next, let alone what to do about his future. His high school sweetheart, Raya, has other plans for him, though, as the two decide to make a bucket list of what they want to do during their summer break instead of fretting about their futures: going to the movies, finding the town’s fluffiest cat, and eating a whole black forest cake sit among other plans on their list. It sounds like a prime summer holiday to me.
That black forest cake will have to wait though, as the two discover that they have newly found supernatural abilities. With the help of a mysterious red book, Atma has the ability to ‘space dive’ into people’s minds, seeing their inner thoughts and memories. Not only that, but in a Psychonauts-style twist, he can also change their point of view by rummaging through their heads, helping them solve their personal problems or, in more dramatic situations, help them deal with compartmentalised trauma from their pasts. Raya, on the other hand, has a general, but very powerful, set of X-Men-esque powers that include levitating objects, freezing people in place, and changing the nature of reality. Damn.
Aces, so we have two supernatural teens with cool powers – love that – but what’s the catch? Turns out that every time Raya uses her powers, it begins to affect the rest of the town. Residents are starting to act strangely and parts of the town haphazardly glitch in and out of reality. There’s also a giant crack in the sky that threatens to shatter the entire world. Playing as Atma, you need to find a way to stop the entire world from collapsing, as well as help Raya who seems to be at the centre of this epic fracture.
“The films of Makoto Shinkai have been a major inspiration here, but it’s more subtle just its aesthetics – it has the sincerity of his films too”
It might seem like the usual supernatural, teenage love story, but A Space For The Unbound is so much more than that. Mojiken’s staple use of magical realism in their games is out in full force here. Scenes of astral magic in a small Indonesian town have a degree of spectacle, and together with talking cats, magical books, and the nature of memories and reality – it really elevates the story in interesting ways. The devs have said the films of Japanese director Makoto Shinkai have been a major inspiration here, but it’s more subtle than just its aesthetics – it has the sincerity of his films too. Its coming of age story teeters on the edge of being soppy occasionally, but it never crosses that line, and instead comes across as more affectionate and sentimental than corny. It also deals with some tough subjects such as grief, depression, bullying and domestic abuse sensitively without becoming mawkish. Together with a great set-up, good pacing and a satisfying payoff, this is a tale that, in two words, absolutely slaps. Also, you may wanna have a tissue or two ready for the ending, just saying.
What really helps drive the story, though, is A Space For The Unbound’s brilliant sense of place. This is an adventure game at heart, and as such you’ll be running all across town chatting to folks, solving puzzles and obtaining items for them to advance the story. It’s all quite simple stuff, but the level of detail on show here is exquisite, with Mojiken somehow making me feel nostalgic for a place I’ve never actually been to. On Atma’s travels, you’ll visit corner shops, internet cafes, 90s arcades, busy school yards, and pop-up noodle shops complete with wooden benches and tarp walls, and they’re all brimming with life and personality. There are also cats absolutely everywhere, and you can name and pet each and every one of them, which is incredible.
Fetch quests can, of course, be a bit of a chore in games like this, but A Space For The Unbound deftly manages to avoid slipping into any untoward pacing slumps. Mini-games such as sneaking past teachers as you try to slip outta school, eavesdropping on conversations in a red-light-green-light-style series of button holds, and even choreographed fight sequences all help break up the pace during your adventure, and there’s even a courtroom scene that does an excellent Ace Attorney impression at one point.
Its love of games and other bits of pop culture from the 90s is clear to see, but there are a couple of instances where that ode to nostalgia strays briefly into frustration. For example, Atma will occasionally need to avoid falling objects by side-stepping them quickly, but this can be tricky to do with any degree of precision when running requires a slightly fudgy double tap in your direction of travel. There’s also a particularly fiendish keepie uppie mini-game I couldn’t ever quite get the hang of, but thankfully Atma’s football skills were never put to the test in the main story quest.
These forays into more action-packed territory are quite rare, though, and while they could be a touch slicker, they didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the game as a whole. I really did love A Space For The Unbound by the time the credits rolled, and its vibrant colour palette really sells the game’s whimsical and dream-like vibe – particularly those skies, my god. Those Shinkai clouds are in full effect, lemme tell you, and those pinks and blues are outrageously gorgeous. They make every backdrop look like a never-ending horizon. The town isn’t just a town in this respect either. Pops of colour and detail make it feel both lived-in and magical. Get your screenshot button ready because there are desktop backgrounds galore.
The best thing about A Space For the Unbound, though, is that it takes a supernatural teen drama gives it real heart. Mojiken were already masters of telling bittersweet stories in miniature, but I’m pleased to report that sense of longing, sincerity and earnestness hasn’t been lost in their transition to making a larger game with a larger scope. A Space For The Unbound may be more ambitious than their previous work, but it still feels distinctly Mojiken, and that’s something to be celebrated. What a wonderful start to 2023.