With a title like Unchained Blades, one would think the latest localized import from XSEED is hack and slash action title rather than a RPG. Poor naming aside, the game is a dungeon crawler that shares many similarities with Shin Megami Tensei, Persona and Final Fantasy X. While it isn’t as deep as those it emulates, Unchained Blades offers a surprisingly robust (and somewhat difficult) experience as you travel between a series of dungeons, collecting and managing a small army of followers while undergoing standard RPG-style character progression.
The premise of the game follows a dragon’s fall from grace. In a mystical land, Fang (the dragon clan emperor) leads his cabal to the goddess Clunea who has the power to grant one wish. Arrogant and very much a jerk, Fang orders Clunea to give him a foe worth battling. When Fang gets impatient and lashes out, she casts him back to land below not before stripping his power. Angry and forced into taking the form of an adolescent human, Fang’s new goal is to take revenge against the goddess and must undergo a pilgrimage to reach her.
The party’s goal of reaching the Goddess involves traversing a series of multi-floored dungeons filled with monsters and light puzzles. These old school inspired labyrinths surround a small town that functions, more or less, as a central hub that offers traditional RPG services including a place to rest, shop, synthesize items dug up from dungeons and take on non-story specific quests. The town will become your party’s second home, as you’ll often find yourself forced to return in order to heal and upgrade equipment.
The dungeons themselves are fairly complex mazes and progress is marked on a mini-map that reveals routes as you move about. Enemies will appear via random encounters and the turned-based combat system will be familiar to genre veterans. In a nod to the Persona series, substantially weakening an enemy allows for the opportunity to have it join your party via the Unchain mini-game (a simple, reaction-based affair). Captured creatures can be attached to any member of the party who will, in turn, help them during combat. These creatures level up separately from the main party and their combat effectiveness is largely influenced by their attitude towards the handlers. At the end of a battle, they will approach their owner at random intervals with a question and your choice will affect their overall outlook. The better the relationship, the more combat efficient they’ll be. Your performance in battle – the speed with which you win the round, the amount of damage given and sustained – will also help them to level up. At times, the party will be forced to stand on the sidelines while the followers engage in a battle with an opposing army. These battles play out much differently and require the player to input QTE-style commands.
Character progression is handled by – what else? – experience points. When your party members reach a new level, they are awarded with increased stats and Skill Points to be usedn used to unlock bonus attributes and abilities through a skill tree system that very much resembles Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid.
Tromping through each labyrinth is presented from the first person perspective and each has their own unique visual design. As each dungeon has its own theme based on the elements, the visual design of the dungeon does the same, offering a nice change of scenery as you move to and from different Titans. The quality and construction of the 3D dungeons won’t set your eyes on fire, but it is adequate. The game’s better pieces of art come from the anime-inspired character profiles and hand drawn landscapes.
If dungeon crawling is your thing, then Unchained Blades is a title worth checking out. It offers an interesting mix of exploration and combat, both of which really enjoy throwing all sorts of curveballs. Secret entrances, locked rooms and the in-game quest system encourage repeated run throughs and maintains every dungeon’s value. Combat is made dynamic by the followers that offer additional offensive and defensive capabilities to your party’s repertoire. Most surprising of all is that enemies can enter the fray with their own followers that fill multiple screens, resulting in some fairly large scale battles.
As engaging as all this sounds, my biggest gripe is that the game’s length feels too artificially padded for my tastes. One example in particular saw me having to wait a significant amount of time to replay a follower battle after losing it the first time. I wasn’t too happy with that development as it reminded me of those free to play online games that give you the option to wait for a recharge or pay to play again immediately. Even though I’ve been levelling up my characters and unlocking new spells and abilities, they still feel incredibly underpowered. The party will burn through magic points only after a few rounds, forcing me to leave the dungeon to heal up and then start from the beginning upon my return. Some may say that this adds a measure of difficulty, but there comes a point when the challenge gets annoying and the meager rewards not worth the effort. Cash flows at a mere trickle and between the rising costs of staying at an inn and purchasing expensive gear, it gets hard to save up.
Although the game lifts certain elements from other RPGs, it doesn’t feel like a rip off or an attempt to pander to a demographic. Unchained Blades is a challenging adventure that requires a methodical and patient attitude towards progression, a good thing as the amount of time you’ll put in completing the main story and the secondary quests just about suits the $30 price tag. The important thing is to know what sort of RPG experience you’re getting into beforehand: Final Fantasy this is not, so don’t expect to blow through large portions of the game in a single afternoon.