Review: A Place for the Unwilling
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This game was selected as one of our October 2019 Reader’s Choice Reviews. Learn more on our Patreon page.
Slow burns seem like a particularly tough sell in the gaming world. Most people sit down with a game for instant gratification, pure action, or a gripping narrative. It takes something special to get someone to invest in a long build-up, which might be why you don’t see many of them around here. A Place for the Unwilling is certainly different, in the strange city of shadows and your position as a bold little merchant. But where most slow burns build to a big reveal, this title continues to smolder all the way to the very end. It’s unique not just in its structure but its permanently lethargic pace, and the difficulty in even finding the full scope of the mystery.
Your childhood friend, Henry Allen, is dead by his own hand. Despite the time and distance separating you, he has left his trading business and worldly possessions in your care. All he asks in his parting missive is for you to look after his widow and his mother. To settle these affairs you move to the city, a sprawling Victorian metropolis wreathed in fog, and continue the business in his stead. The many merchants and officials of the city offer their welcome but all is not well here, as the tensions between the rich and poor, capital and labor, are coming to a head. Your actions will impact the lives of those you meet in dramatic ways, and have the potential to shift the balance of power between classes. But behind all the deals and negotiations, the question remains… why did your friend end his life?
You may have noticed a few interesting points on the store page for A Place for the Unwilling, such as the “Lovecraftian” tag, or the clearly-stated fact that the city will die in 21 days. And you may be wondering why I didn’t mention those in my synopsis of the game just now. That’s because for a remarkable stretch of the game, easily six to eight hours, you won’t detect a hint of anything eldritch or supernatural. You begin as a newcomer to the city, with your main concern being trading and socializing. The whole of the three districts are laid open to you, and you’re free to wander, talk to the many residents, and attempt to buy low and sell high from the shops. Every morning you’ll receive notes from some of the citizens, asking you to visit them, and you’ll have to spend your limited time each day deciding who to meet, who to help, and what to do around the city.
The game proceeds like this, as a sort of low-key trading adventure, for the entire first week. You’ll learn more about the city and the people that you talk to, and there are some definite quirks about the place you’ll probably catch, but mostly you’ll be making friends and money. This doesn’t really change much over the following two weeks, either, but the tone and implications of it all will shift. The second week brings with it much grimmer intrigue to follow, and a clear sign that something unnatural is happening in the city. By the third week there’s a chance that you’ll have discovered the secret behind it all, but rather than being some seismic shift or dawning revelation, it just means you’ll be spending those last few days preparing for the end. That’s the slow, persistent burn of the game, how it gives you hours and hours of simply slipping into the fabric of the city to learn its ins and outs, and instead of building to anything it slips its secrets back to you and waits to see what you do with them.
Whether this is a good thing or bad thing is entirely up to the player, really. A Place for the Unwilling is a giant mystery with no parlor scene, and no guarantee you’ll even uncover it all the first time. Revealing the secrets of the city requires befriending the right people and helping them with their tasks, which can prove difficult on a number of levels. Sometimes the tasks require actual moral choices, like neglecting the poor to please an influential businessman, or siding with citizens against the police at the risk of harm to yourself. Other times the task itself will be unclear, due to some sloppy writing or scripting oddities with the events. And sometimes things will simply take longer than you think, meaning you’ll miss resolving a quest because you returned ten minutes past 7 PM and the shop is closed.
This is a tough game for perfectionists or completionists, because you won’t have time to do everything you might want to do, and some of the requirements are quite strict. You also won’t know how certain things work sometimes, particularly when quests are vague about where you should meet someone or who you should talk to for assistance. There are no second chances either, with some tasks only doable on the same day you receive them, regardless of whether that’s first thing in the morning or ten minutes before everything in the city closes. And that’s assuming no bugs impact your work, like dialogues playing out of sequence or your character getting stuck on walls or debris. I never had any game-ending issues but I came close on the next-to-last day, when I broke the area transitions somehow and couldn’t leave a particular street.
Ultimately, it’s safe to say that A Place for the Unwilling will nothing like what you’re expecting. As a slow, unforgiving, obtuse, and occasionally buggy adventure, more than a little patience is required to get much out of it. And on days when no one is giving out tasks for whatever reason, or you receive one of ten endings that explains virtually nothing about the city’s true nature, you might be wondering what you’re doing here. But that’s also the beauty of it, that there’s nothing else quite like it out there. No other game lets you trade goods and foment popular rebellion on the streets of a city not quite moored in reality, or befriend the strange figures who laugh and share with you even as their doom approaches. Even after spending a dozen hours on a single playthrough and finding very little resolution, I’m far more curious than frustrated. So if you see me wandering the streets of the nameless city once again, you might see why I regard this little gem so highly.