gy The Spectrum Sanctuary - ZX Spectrum review of Unhallowed by Activision

Adventure games

Delve into some of the ZX Spectrum's text and graphic adventures.

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Unhallowed

Unhallowed by Blerkotronic Software - loading screen
Unhallowed - an engrossing text adventure from Blerkotronic Software

  • Release year: 2021
  • Publisher: Blerkotronic Software/Bitmap Soft
  • Author: Blerkotron
  • ZXDB archive entry at Spectrum Computing

Background

I appreciate that in these modern times people are still making Speccy text adventures - for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, by the nature of the genre it's likely that player numbers will be lower than those of arcade games, so it's truly a labour of love from the author.

Secondly, many authors have learnt since the 80s (or even earlier) what was very annoying about many old-school text adventures - things that I'm always moaning about. I'm talking dead ends, unfair or timed deaths, obscure vocabulary and unfathomable puzzles. Oh, and mazes (shudder).

Unhallowed was released in 2018 (on Halloween no less) by Blerkotron. It's a 128k text adventure made with Gilsoft's Professional Adventure Writer.

Incidentally, it's also available in tape format from Bitmap Soft, if you enjoy playing on original hardware. I'm reviewing this slightly apologetically as I don't own the tape myself, but go grab yourself a copy if you want the snazzy artwork to go with the experience itself.

Just to mention that this is a fairly short feature and shouldn't contain any spoilers, particularly to do with puzzles/solutions.

The Game

Unhallowed - title screen
Great to see P.A.W. still being used, over 30 years after its release

The title screen bills Unhallowed as a 'short story'. I've played a few modern games with this same descriptor, that have tended to involve minimal player input, or little in the way of puzzles - perhaps just a multi-choice branching story. I'm pleased to say that Unhallowed, despite having an involving story, has a bit more to it than this.

The first thing that strikes you is the clear and pleasant Clairsys font. The game is text-only (no graphics) but the narrative is well-written and deeply descriptive, and at no point was I disappointed at the lack of location graphics.

Unhallowed - in-game screen
The rich descriptions in the game make you really want to EXAMINE things

On the subject of locations, there are very few. In the house, instead of NORTH, SOUTH, EAST and WEST you can GO HALLWAY, GO LOUNGE to move around. You definitely won't need to make a map.

Apart from the aforementioned movement, you've got your standard words such as EXAMINE and OPEN, but pretty much all other interactions are a case of USE x WITH y, so you shouldn't be smacking your head on your keyboard or flicking through your thesaurus.

To make things even simpler, locations you can move to are shown in green, items you can interact with in yellow, and items you can pick up in cyan. You should be flying through this game without encountering a single "I CAN'T SEE THE x".

Unhallowed - in-game screen
The Unhallowed story had me pretty gripped throughout

Without giving away too much of the game as I don't want to spoiler the story, it starts with you returning home from work on Halloween night. But things quickly get very spooky.

As the story unfolds further, it started reminding me of both Poltergeist and Evil Dead. Without gushing about the writing too much, I was impressed how much of a creepy and tense atmosphere was generated just from text - especially knowing that you cannot die in the game.

Unhallowed - in-game screen
The game has very few locations, and all puzzles are eminently logical

Despite the relatively few locations, a dimension shift/alternate reality game mechanic adds an extra... well, yep, gotta say it - dimension to the puzzles. I won't say much more than that - I'll let you figure it out.

The game also does a bit of your 'adventure admin' for you. Don't need an object any more? You chuck it away after using it. Found an object that's likely to be useful? You quickly pick it up. There are also no inventory limits - a restriction I accepted in the 80s but subsequently never quite worked out what they added to adventure games, other than mild annoyance.

Summary

Unhallowed - in-game screen
A text adventure that somehow gives you jump scares

I originally expected this to be a very short game (not knowing anything about it), containing a few puzzles in 'escape the room' style. It turned out the story was a bit longer than my expectations. In a good way though - I found the puzzles relatively straightforward, and they fit nicely and seamlessly into the story.

The author has clearly not skimped on detailed responses to the player's actions. There's one instance that stuck in my mind where I tried to use an object to retrieve another one - it wasn't the right object to use, but seemed logical. Rather than a blanket YOU CAN'T response, I was told why it didn't/wouldn't work. I tried another (still incorrect) object, and got another detailed response. As a 128K game I felt that the extra memory had been used wisely in this respect.

Unhallowed - in-game screen
A text adventure with progressive game mechanics designed to minimize player frustration

I'd strongly recommend Unhallowed to a beginner, or someone who never really played, or completed many adventures. I suspect you'll be able to finish it; you only ever seem to have one objective at any time. And you're given plenty of hints to what you should be looking to do, rather than needing to trigger them through the in-game HELP command (which isn't used apart from dispensing basic game instructions).

I'm by no means a seasoned adventure player (played many, solved few) but I managed to complete it in one evening, without hints or a walkthrough. Give it a try - it's an enthralling story. Once you get invested in it, you'll be itching to find out how it ends...