Probably my favourite moment in UnMetal came when sneaking through a screen full of sleeping guard dogs. My stench was visibly wafting across the screen, alternating between going straight up and straight down. The goal was, of course, to carefully weave through the deadly mutts without my horrific, sewer-drenched clothes waking them up. But on my second attempt, I thought of something: I went to the inventory and equipped the thermal suit I had previously used to pass by thermal sensors. To my surprise and delight, the suit contained my reek and I was able to amble through the dogs. Was this just some bug, or had the lone developer really considered that I might stick the suit on? I think it’s the latter, because this is a seriously well-designed game.
No long afterwards, I encounter a series of flame jets that I patiently dodged my way through. And as I reached the very end a cutscene triggered where Jesse was asked why he hadn’t just used the thermal suit, which would let him walk through the flames unscathed. Jesse hastily tries to concoct a lie about his mind being foggy, but has to admit that he just didn’t think of it. On the way back, I sheepishly don the suit and walk through the fires that had killed me twice. Touche, developer, touche.
This is just one small sliver of UnMetal, both a homage to and parody of, numerous classic games created by just a single dude: Francisco Téllez de Meneses, who just goes by Fran. Above all, its Metal Gear Solid inspirations are the driving force of everything, especially the simple yet sleek stealth. There are dozens of guards to sneak past or beat up, boss battles to struggle through, items to combine and enough 4th walls broken to bring down the whole house. And let’s be honest, as amazing as the Metal Gear Solid games have been (Well, except that one, anyway) they did take themselves very seriously at times, luxuriating in lengthy cutscenes like a pig wallowing in a mudbath. UnMetal happily takes the piss out of MGS and a bunch of other games and gaming tropes in general, but at no point does it feel it’s coming from a bad place – Fran obviously adore Kojima’s work and gaming in general.
Jesse Fox has been imprisoned in a secret military facility for crimes he did not commit, something which he repeats so often it becomes a running joke. With a gruff voice and bandana, his Solid Snake inspirations are there for the world to see. Having successfully escaped in a Russian jet, the story is told via Jesse relaying the details of his dramatic and frequently baffling escape to an American military man who is trying to ascertain how Jesse came to land in America. Because Jesse didn’t just break out of a top-secret Russian base – he fought mutant fish, threw grenades at a nuclear submarine and left a lot of unconscious soldiers in his wake. Clearly, Jesse has some explaining to do.
What transpires is a hilarious tale that makes constant use of the old unreliable narrator trope to great effect. Jesse’s tall tale becomes skyscraper-sized, and Fran finds a neat way to double down on Jesse’s excellent narration. At times you’re even given choices on what’s happening, which is why I found myself in a small room filled with several hundred sheep who all seemed to be just as confused as I was. As the military man pokes holes in Jesse’s story, Jesse hastily tries to fill it all in. Right at the start the interrogator asks how Jesse got the noose he used to fake his death in his cell, and Jesse just keeps telling him, “I’ll tell you later.” Later, when Jesse faces off against Grenade Guy, he explains he couldn’t get near him because of a small ditch. When the interrogator asks Jesse why he didn’t just climb across, Jesse claims that he couldn’t because the ditch was actually filled with tentacles, which appear on your screen. Once the foe is defeated, Jesse ambles across a small bridge which magically appears. When rightfully asked about why he didn’t use that before. Jesse tries to cover up his plot-hole.
It’s the kind of stuff that wouldn’t feel out of place in something like Hot Shots or even the Austin Powers films. It’s absurdist humour, and UnMetal is more than happy to level its gun at numerous video game tropes. Hell, at one point a trio of guards uses a tossed coin to lure Jesse into a trap. The writing is consistently sharp and consistently funny. I properly belly laughed like a dozen times playing it. It certainly isn’t going to be for everything, but for morons like me it’s hilarious.
The stealth-based gameplay is comfortable and familiar, the kind you’ll easily get to grips with. Guards can be lured with thrown coins or just by punching a nearby box, making it nice and easy to unleash a flurry of blows on them or slapping a chloroform rag over their mouths. Their bodies can then be picked up and hidden to avoid alerting the other guards to your presence. They aren’t exactly a smart bunch, mind you, but they don’t really need to be as this isn’t a complex game with layered gameplay systems. They just need to bumble around, and since you don’t have a lot of health they’re deadly whenever you get spotted. When the alarm is raised there is a possibility of hiding and letting it all blow over, but I generally found the swarm of guards were able to get me first, making stealth vital.
Something else that pushes you to be stealthy but aggressive is the levelling system. Yup, you can level up in UnMetal, with each new level granting you a simple choice between two options like being able to blend into the environment or just hitting harder. You can only get XP by taking out guards without alerting them, though, pushing you to keep hidden but also giving you a nudge to shit on every guard’s day. Sorry, Mike, I could just run past you but the allure of that glorious XP is just too much. Take a few Paracetamols, you’ll be right as rain in a couple of weeks.
At one point you’re handed a gun, a easy way of taking out a guard from a distance. It’s a threat to the stealth gameplay, potentially unbalancing everything. But instead of letting you go on a rampage, Jesse makes a promise to the smoking hot base nurse that he won’t kill anyone. And so anytime you shoot a guard, you have to use a med-kit to stop them from bleeding to death. And so now the gun offers quick and easy solution to a problem, but with a pricey trade-off. That’s some smart design.
And talking of bleeding, almost every injury Jesse takes results in him bleeding. To stop the flow of crimson you have to apply a bandage or med-kit, making you stop for a few seconds. In a boss fight that can obviously be the difference between victory and getting turned into a gory pinata. I don’t mind this, but I do think bleeding needs to be toned down a little so that some injuries cause it rather than pretty much any them.
Unmetal consistently finds ways to twist and change its gameplay formula, producing loads of variety and fun scenarios. One minute you’re trudging through sewers infested with mutants and the next you’re piloting a one-man sub. There’s minefields to navigate, boats to drive, fire to dodge, nuclear submarines to fight, killer spider robots and more. The surprisingly lengthy 7-10 hour campaign never grows stale, although not everything it does is a winner. A few of its ideas, like hurling electromagnetic grenades at security cameras, are a tad annoying and drag the pace of the game down. There’s also a couple of sections where it feels setup for you to die so you can learn the actual method to progress, which could irritate some folk. But these are fairly minor blips in an otherwise excellent, hilarious and fun campaign.
There’s even some hints of old-school adventure gaming too, with an inventory where you can use and combine items. Don’t worry; there’s no absurdly convoluted puzzles requiring leaps of logic that would make Bugs Bunny confused, but Fran makes some good use of it, like throwing together a fake guard so that you can fool cameras into thinking the guard’s are still there, rather than bleeding out of their ears behind a pile of creates where you left ’em.
Set within the drab concrete halls of a military facility and the greenery of the surrounding jungle, UnMetal isn’t much of a looker. The classic pixelated style is implemented well, even if I do think it’s getting overused these days, but the environments and just about everything else are…well, kind of dull. A little more flair for the character designs or a bit more detail in the environments would have gone a long way.
I can’t fault the voice acting in the same way, though. Everyone delivers great performances, and in particular Andrew Miller is absolutely killing it as the gruff Jesse Fox.
And finally, I have to give credit to UnMetal being a flawless experience. I never ran into a glitch or bug. Everything just worked, and in 2021 that’s an amazing thing. So many games launch in poor form with bugs everywhere or performance drops so bad it starts to make Windows 11 look perfectly stable. Of course, it’s much easier to polish a smaller, indie game to a brilliant finish, but there’s no doubt that Fran combed through his game with a fine brush, looking for every little thing he could find. And that attention to detail means there’s plenty of cool little touches to be discovered, like the whole thermal suit escapade I mentioned earlier.
Lurking in the shadows like Solid Snake waiting to choke out am unsuspecting guard just minding his own business, UnMetal would be easy to overlook and that’s a freaking shame. I’m glad that I didn’t skip this one because UnMetal up being one of my favourite experiences of the year, and I urge you not to overlook it either. Comedy in videogames typically misses a lot more than it hits, but UnMetal had me giggling and guffawing like an idiot. Combine that with the solidly executed stealth gameplay and you end up with an excellent time. I’m left hoping that Jesse Fox has another adventure or two in him yet.