by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
Trying Something New
Innovation is rare in gaming, but innovation that yields positive results is even harder to find. Unknown Number, developed and published by godolphin games, takes some novel risks with its presentation but ultimately delivers an engaging puzzle experience.
The central gimmick in Unknown Number is that the whole thing, with a few exceptions, takes place via voice through a virtual cell phone. While other games, like 2021's Doctor Who: The Lonely Assassins, also mirror a cell phone user interface, I've never played one that pairs it with microphone integration to mirror the feeling of actually speaking to someone.
As the name implies, everything starts with a call from an unknown number. On the other end of the line are two people, Ethan and Amanda, who are in desperate need of some help. They've snuck their way onto a largely abandoned oil rig in an attempt to steal $7 billion in cryptocurrency from an oil tycoon so that they can repurpose it for reforestation efforts. The player isn't the person they were trying to call, but they make it work and embark on an adventure to break into each of the seven safe spots containing a virtual wallet worth a billion dollars.
A Puzzling Phone Call
As can be assumed from the basic plot description, Unknown Number is primarily divided into seven puzzles, each one tied to opening a vault. The puzzles and conversations start out a bit basic, though they improve as the game continues. They mix voice interactions and phone-based number entry, and figuring out the requirements of the puzzle is usually a bigger challenge than the puzzle itself. Furthermore, several puzzles and conversations require the use of a web browser to look up information about the fictional Sligoil company. There's a real web browser built into the game's interface, but players can also have their preferred browser open in another window or on another screen.
Something I did appreciate about the game is that it necessitates the use of a notebook or scrap paper, so players will want to make sure they have something to write with. The strings of numbers from phone calls can be revisited via the in-game help button (which offers clues for players that are stuck), but by the end of Unknown Number, I had two pages of numbers, names, and other notes written down.
Connecting With The Player
The central conceit of these vaults and the rig's security systems functioning via phone (and the fact that Ethan and Amanda can call the player but not the numbers to solve the puzzles themselves) is easy enough to make with a reasonable suspension of disbelief, and I found myself properly engaged with the story and characters that I was speaking to.
The first stretch of the game plays like a pretty straight visual novel and doesn't really use voice input for anything that couldn't be done in a more traditional game, but later, there are a few puzzles that I had a lot of fun with that required me to alter the way I speak that was both fun and funny.
While most of the game is fairly light despite some serious subject matter and a fairly spooky cult-like environmental organization, Unknown Number elevated itself and became truly memorable in the final half hour or so (the whole thing took me about 2.5 hours to complete), when the intimate nature of phone conversations is used to great effect. One interaction in particular, which wasn't a puzzle, had me wishing I could pause to think a bit more, and the subsequent phone call had me feeling legitimately terrible. Much of this can be owed to the voice cast; the main pair does a fantastic job.
Volume is a problem, but not A deal-breaker
While most of the puzzles and mechanics are solid, there were a few hiccups and design choices that did give me a hard time. The most notable and frustrating was a conversation that required me to repeat a sentence several times, getting louder with each repetition. I was shouting to the point that I was concerned my apartment neighbors were going to say something, and it still wasn't registering as loud enough despite my mic being properly set up. It was frustrating and the only time I actually took a break from to game to finish the next day, which killed a bit of the mood in a format that's best experienced in one sitting. There absolutely needs to be an "I can't/don't want to shout right now" option for people playing the game at night, people who physically can't shout as loud as the game wants, or people in living situations that make screaming less than ideal.
That relatively minor negative aside, Unknown Number was a lot of fun and is easy to recommend for those looking to play a short, novel game that brings its ideas together well. Actual decision points are relatively limited, so replay value isn't particularly high, but the experience is fun enough the first time through that that isn't a big drawback. I appreciated how Unknown Number became a bit more personal and expanded some of its concepts towards the end, and I'll definitely be in line to check out a sequel, spiritual or otherwise, if godolphin games ever makes one.
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Interesting gimmick that’s used well, talented voice cast, satisfying ending.
Volume-based challenges present issues, some dull early conversations/puzzles