Unknown 9: Awakening is an ambitious new transmedia bid

What came first, the video game or the tie-in novel? Typically it’s the former — and only after it’s proven to be successful. But this isn’t the case with Unknown 9: Awakening, a historical action adventure published by Bandai Namco originally announced back in 2020. Back then, it was due for launch the following year. Now, it will rather belatedly arrive this summer, long after a number of other Unknown 9 things have already debuted: a comic, the beginnings of a novel trilogy, a Spotify podcast. There’s no Michael Fassbender movie in sight just yet, but the hope is that Unknown 9: Awakening will supercharge interest in all that, and act as an entry point into this fresh storytelling universe.

If you tuned in to last night’s Xbox Partner Preview showcase, you’ll have seen a bit of Unknown 9 in action. At first glance, it looks like a cross between Assassin’s Creed and modern Tomb Raider, starring a character named Haroona played by Anya Chalotra (Yennefer in Netflix’s version of The Witcher). But while last night’s trailer was combat heavy, an extended look I was given offered plenty of moments for quieter, stealthier tactics, and smarter gameplay using a suite of special powers.

So, what’s it all about? Well, you know how Assassin’s Creed has an ancient civilisation and modern day clandestine societies vying to exploit its secret knowledge to promote rival causes centering on the nature of control or free will? It’s very much like that.

Cover image for YouTube videoUnknown 9: Awakening – Announcement Trailer | Xbox Partner Preview

Unknown 9: Awakening Xbox Partner Preview trailer.

The franchise’s titular Unknown 9 are immortals from long ago who possess information that can lead to humanity’s salvation or destruction. Searching for them throughout history are a pair of rival groups: The Leap Year Society and The Ascendants (who sound a lot like the Assassins and the Templars). And to shake things up a little, certain members of these groups — like our heroine Haroona — can access something called The Fold, an alternate dimension which can be used as a source of power. In a nutshell, you get cool abilities — things like telekinesis and the ability to possess others — via a supercharged version of The Force.

Our first glimpse at Unknown 9, years ago, came via a cinematic trailer showing a young girl fighting off a group of bullies in an alleyway using special powers. I remember being impressed by it, though not being clear exactly how representative it was of what we’d eventually get to play. Certainly, the powers on show there are still evident in the game — though perhaps unsurprisingly you play as a grown up version of that child, Haroona, and perhaps a little sadly your enemies now seem like faceless goons. What I’ve been told of Unknown 9’s story is that it’s one of revenge — that Haroona, now a part of one of the game’s secret societies, is seeking the person who killed her former mentor.

If this all sounds very Ubisoft Montreal, it may not surprise you to know that Unknown 9: Awakening is being made by Montreal-based studio Reflector Entertainment, which was co-founded and formerly run by Assassin’s Creed Unity creative director Alexandre Amancio (although he has since departed the company). Gameplay I was shown included the game’s hooded main character leaping across rooftops and using stealth to take down enemies. Even the game’s 1912 setting felt like a location from within an Animus.

Cover image for YouTube videoUnknown 9: Awakening — Official Teaser Trailer

The original debut teaser trailer for Unknown 9, showing a younger Haroona.

But it’s here that the similarities end, as Unknown 9: Awakening aims for something a little different. For starters, the game is level-based and not open world, and relies heavily on its powers-based combat to keep things interesting. Your ability to possess enemies — allowing you to shoot their fellow soldiers, or run straight into explosions — reminded me a little of Free Radical’s under-appreciated Second Sight, while the upgradable ability to chain possessions and zoom around levels via lots of different enemies felt almost Driver: San Francisco (another Ubisoft game, I know, but different enough!).

Chaining enemy takedowns, comboing in other powers such as a bullet-stopping Matrix force shield, and quickly zipping between enemies as they meet their demise looks fun, even if levels seem to regularly rely on handily-placed nearby explosives. The ability to «step» between enemy possessions is just one of a suite of abilities, including physics-based pushing and pulling attacks to send enemies flying down precipices, or crush them with rocks. I’d say the ability to interact with objects remotely — snuffing out torches and so forth — also felt a bit Watch Dogs, but then we’d be back to Ubiosft Montreal again.

I’m perhaps most intrigued by the game’s story, which promises to be something of a globe-trotting adventure you leap aboard after capturing a cool-looking Zeppelin that acts as your story hub. It’s here you’ll interact with characters you pick up along the way, and presumably discover how deep Unknown 9’s sci-fi storytelling goes. If you have watched/listened/consumed other Unknown 9 media, I’m told there will be plenty of references to the franchise’s nascent wider universe, though this is a standalone story, and Unknown 9 as a whole is meant to be a series which can dip in and out of various characters and time periods. I’m certainly going to give it a try when it arrives for PC, PlayStation and Xbox this summer. But I’ll wait until after that for the podcast.

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