Can you survive a night at Stonewall Penitentiary? Or, was your fate sealed when the gates closed behind you?
I first encountered Unimatrix Productions when I played Lifestream and Shady Brook in 2016. These were followed by The Filmmaker at the end of 2016 which I reviewed and gave high marks. Despite very different stories and characters, all three games have a common look, and I feel that was provided by the Storycentric game engine. They straddle the line between a text adventure and a graphic novel.
Since 2016, Christopher Brendel (the man behind Unimatrix) has been updating his game engine and working on an entirely new story. On May 14th, Stonewall Penitentiary will be available on Steam and I was privileged to get a “first look” ahead of time.
Stonewall Penitentiary is a departure from the earlier Unimatrix games in terms of interface and complexity. It is a 2D point-and-click adventure with a gripping “who-done-it” story. Those who have played previous Unimatrix titles will recognize elements of the original interface such as the map, the journal, and the point system. However, the game mechanics have changed dramatically. Gone are the remnants of text adventuring. Instead, Stonewall Penitentiary is presented in a more traditional 2D point-and-click adventure format that supports the story perfectly.
The game begins when William Thane awakes in a locked prison cell with no idea how he got there. He is naked but not alone. There is a woman (Jessie) in the next cell in a similar predicament. You play from the first-person perspective of William and your first order of business is to get out of your cell, free Jessie, and find some clothes.
Dressed in fashionably orange prison garb, you and Jessie receive orders to proceed to the cafeteria. There you find 4 other individuals who are also confused and trapped. Using a video to communicate, a masked man announces that each of you has been brought to this abandoned prison as punishment for your crimes. In an electronically altered voice, he advises that judgment is at hand and you have until morning to escape or be killed. Since all prison exits are sealed, your future is not looking bright.
The 6 of you exchange information and then, armed with only a radio for communication, separate to search for an escape route. You soon discover an additional prisoner, bringing your group to a total of 7. You also find evidence that, although closed for years, the Stonewall Penitentiary has a recent history of twisted violence.
The game proceeds as you explore the prison and work cooperatively with others to find a way out. As it turns out, everyone has a secret. Each of you is directly (or indirectly) responsible for the death of another. The mysterious man who has brought you here is determined that justice is finally served. Over the course of the night, members of the group are targeted and killed by this unknown punisher. You and the surviving group members exchange confidences and begin working together more closely to stay alive.
The best part of Stonewall Penitentiary is the story and, once again, Christopher Brendel succeeds at telling an engrossing tale that will keep you guessing until the very end. It is a multi-faceted narrative and the choices you make (such as where to hide, which path to take, and who you will trust) have consequences. The game’s ending will vary depending on your actions and alliances.
This is an adventure that requires paying attention to every detail in the environment. There are gates to open, secrets to discover, and puzzles to solve. There are notes to read, journals to find, log books to examine, and inventory objects to gather. As the game progresses, new clues and objects appear so the wise player circles back through the prison on a regular basis to check for changes. It is a dangerous environment and at times, you must run for your life. The good news is that if you are killed, the game lets you restart the scene and try again.
The interface is traditional point and click with navigation by clicking at the edge of a scene to move to the next. Active areas and objects are clicked to “Look at” or to perform a specific action such as “Open,” “Take,” etc. Character conversations are executed by clicking on questions or responses. In some cases, the backstory is presented in still scenes with text narrative.
At times, you will be carrying quite a bit of inventory which is organized for viewing and used by dragging and dropping. Once an object has served its purpose, it disappears. There are puzzles that require piecing together clues and looking for patterns. Pertinent information and clues are automatically recorded in your journal for use as a reference when needed. Finally, a map of the prison is constructed as you proceed.
There is a reasonable amount of dialog with other characters, but not too much. Conversations are short and relevant, giving you just enough information to keep moving. The voiceovers are professionally done and I found myself taking time to listen rather than clicking and speed reading.
Like previous Unimatrix titles, Stonewall Penitentiary has a point system that updates as you perform specific actions and overcome obstacles. These give you an ongoing sense of your progress and, at the end, alerts you to how much you may have missed. There are also Steam Achievements along the way.
I have enjoyed every Unimatrix game I’ve played. However, I think that Stonewall Penitentiary is Christopher’s finest achievement to date. The interface is intuitive and he provides everything you need to be successful (map, journal, etc.). The artwork is hand drawn, with attention to detail. The music and sound effects combine to create tension throughout the game. Not only is William attempting to avoid a killer, but he is also racing the clock to find an out before morning. Although the game clock is ticking, actual game play is not on a timer and the night lasts as long as it takes you to work through the complexities of the penitentiary.
Those who enjoy story-driven adventures should not miss Stonewall Penitentiary. I completed the game in several sittings and lost track of time as I played. I became truly “stuck” at only two points. Both were in areas with no obvious exit (an underground mine and a cold storage locker) so I knew that solutions were within reach. In both cases, I persevered and reasoned my way out. There is something very rewarding when you finally have a breakthrough and can say “puzzle solved!” I would encourage players to avoid the temptation to run for a walkthrough. All puzzles are fair and simply require being observant and thinking logically.
I was convinced that I had solved the mystery and then found, at the very end, I had it all wrong. The game was interesting enough that I am tempted to go back and replay it with different choices just to see how the story changes.
+ Excellent mystery that will keep you guessing from start to finish
+ Challenging but solvable puzzles that make sense within the context of the story
+ Artwork and sound track combine to create a realistically tense and creepy atmosphere
– Onscreen indicators of exit points would eliminate the need to scan the edges of each scene to determine your next move
Additional Notes: Native resolution: 1366×768; rescales to fill screen