When it comes to wacky video game ideas, nothing beats the work of a Japanese studio. In reality though, we only see a select bunch of Japanese games in the West, the smaller and less well funded rarely make it across the oceans. That's not the case for this weird but wonderful little game from a tiny Japanese indie developer. Unholy Heights is a mash-up of two genres that you've probably never thought could co-exist. The title is part building management sim, part tower defence game and whole load of wacky. It's a great example of the subtle differences in culture between here and the East, but also some of the difference in game design. While it never proves to be something revolutionary, it's a fun experience for a bargain price.
The base concept is pretty fantastic. You play as the Devil, but not the cliched red Devil with horns and tail, oh no, this Devil is steadily balding and rocks a pair of thick glasses with a mustache. With this new look Satan, your job is to set up a profitable apartment block reserved specifically for monsters. Something about them being much calmer tenants than Humans. In order to advance through the game you'll need to strategically decide which monsters to allow into your building and then keep those individuals happy by buying them items and furniture for their rooms. Ever the judgmental sort, the local Humans aren't happy about the Devil setting up camp near their towns, so regular attacks must be fought off using the very same tenants that occupy your flats. It's a two-way deal, you see.
It may all sound a tad confusing, but the core gameplay mechanics are actually very well handled. Everything can be easily accessed and activated with a click of the mouse and the UI makes it clear what's going on and why. Keeping your tenants happy is easy enough; just click on their room and look at what item they're asking for, buy it if you've got the money and that monster will like the room, and the Devil, a little bit more. Cleverly, keeping your tenants happy will give them stat boosts when it comes to fighting, so staying on their good side is encouraged throughout. The other factor to consider is the balance of monsters you have within your apartment as a whole. Certain types of monster (there are eight different varieties) hate other types, some monsters like hot or cold rooms, and they all have different fighting styles that could influence how you choose them. It's an effective system that forces you to create a balance between combat effectiveness and apartment happiness.
With your apartment sorted, you've then got to consider attacks from the local Humans. These come in two forms: random attacks that are usually easy to defeat but bring little reward, and quest attacks which are activated by the player. The decision to make the quests an active choice gives time for the player to build up a decent army (of monster tenants), thereby making attacks about preparation, not just micro-management during the actual assault. When the Humans do attack, gameplay is fast and furious. The only way to get the monsters to fight is by knocking on their doors, which can be done at any time during an attack. Choosing the right time to knock on each door is key to victory, as it decides the order of attack and allows you to ensnare enemies between several monsters. The combat is tricky to get to grips with initially, but by the midpoint of the game it's excellently balanced and great fun. It does become a little tiresome by the end of the game, however. Although the varying types of monster keeps things relatively fresh.
Speaking of monsters, Unholy Heights features an incredible array of crazy beasts to discover and provide a home for. As mentioned there are eight classes of creature, ranging from half-breed Chimera to the classic undead variety. While the cutesy cartoon visuals are anything but monstrous, the monsters themselves look brilliant. The art style sets the tone of the whole game and each individual monster looks wonderfully unique. Much like the Devil , they're all a little tongue-in-cheek and in a gaming scene filled to the brim with cliched monsters, it's wonderfully refreshing. On top of this, each creature that appears has a unique name and will actively live out their life during gameplay. You can read what they're getting up to, follow their working careers and even see them form families within your flats (literally, there's even an amusing "pillowtalk" animation). When this combines with an equally varied item system, you're left with some hilarious possibilities. Skeletons wanting perfume? Ok, then. Giant slugs demanding a jump rope? Why not?
It is, ultimately, all wonderfully Japanese and there's a sense of imagination to be found throughout the game. The game world looks as good as the monsters and the Human enemies are bad-ass. Especially the ninja monks. Sound design is lacking, although this is to be expected in a small independent project. The game forced me to commit the cardinal gaming sin, to play my own music over the top of the title. So that's a clear indication of the audio quality on offer here. There are other issues with the game, too. Although the combat is fun and strategic, it barely evolves at all during the whole game (which can last up to 10 hours). The quest system used to progress the game is functional, but not exactly interesting or exciting and there's not a lot of reasons to play it through again. For a one time only though, you can't go wrong with price, which is around the same as a more expensive mobile app.
Unholy Heights is a brilliant showpiece in original, inspired game design. It manages to find that sweet spot between simple and strategic while maintaining a brilliantly jovial tone. It looks fantastic in action and features an art style that perfectly compliments the wacky use of monsters, Humans and items (the smutty wallpaper is a particular favourite). It has its undeniable flaws, the first of which is the lack of real variety within the gameplay, but it manages to remain enjoyable from beginning to end. At regular indie title price, this'd be a 7.5 at best, but for the price it's being offered, the score just has to be bumped up a little. A great bargain and a good game make it an easy recommendation.
Unholy Heights (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
When it comes to wacky video game ideas, nothing beats the work of a Japanese studio. In reality though, we only see a select bunch of Japanese games in the West, the smaller and less well funded rarely make it across the oceans. That's not the case for this weird but wonderful little game from a tiny Japanese indie developer.