XSEED’s newest release, Unchained Blades, should be easy to describe. Seemingly just a straightforward first-person dungeon crawler with traditional turn-based battles, the game could very come across to most onlookers as a generic labrynth game that’s best targeted towards a practically non-existent niche.
After digging into it, though, you might start to realize how it differentiates itself. The story, while exemplifying the typical structure of the genre, is nonetheless entertaining. The art style is phenomenal across the board, if you can get passed the bland dungeon designs. The battle system introduces a number of pleasantly unique functions that serve to shake up the otherwise redundant gameplay.
You might have noticed that there’s a negative aspect for each of the compliments above. While Unchained Blades does a number of refreshing things to the genre, it still presents an irritating question: are these changes to the formula enough? All of these things and more come together to make the game one that can stand on its own merits, but for how long? Does it rely on the dilapidated crutches of the genre’s underlying mechanics a bit too much? Read on to find out!
Let’s start with the story. You’ll begin playing as the strongest creature in the world, the Dragon Emperor Fang. In the world of Unchained Blades, the goddess who created the world is named Clunea, and she’s a bit of a recluse. She hides away watching the lands below, but isn’t neglectful; indeed, if a being finds their way to her abode, she’ll grant any wish the adventurer strives for.
Fang, being a general badass, just heads straight up to Clunea, though he has no wish in mind. You see, Fang wants to beat the hell out of the most powerful being in the world, just so he can prove that it’s actually him. He tells Clunea that she’d better tell him where the strongest creature alive is, and Clunea doesn’t take kindly to the haughty attitude. She promptly strips Fang of his powers, leaving him as a fledgling human in the Temple of Trials. And hence, we have the general premise of the game: Fang’s going to ascend through the temple, gaining his powers back in order to extract glorious revenge on Clunea. Since Fang’s a bit weak, he can’t exactly do all of this alone. As such, he’ll encounter other creatures on their way up to the goddess, all of whose stories unravel as you play.
While the dungeon designs are, for the most part, repetitive, the character art is wonderfully done. From the characters in your party to the monsters you’ll encounter throughout the game, very rarely will you find something that isn’t exceptionally done. It’s been noted that the art, and specifically the characters, were all done by renowned Japanese artists familiar with the genre, and it shows. While icons during battle always remain the same, any armor or character change is visible in detail on its own. The voice acting, aside from Fang, is uninspired, and while music is actually pretty cool on its own, it getting stuck on loop in a dungeon can become disgustingly annoying.
Of course, gameplay is what it really comes down to in this genre. Unchained Blades’ gameplay revolves around dungeon crawling, which is where just about all your time will be spent. While traversing the dungeons, you’ll be able to grab items, synthesize weapons and potions, develop characters in a number of ways, and more, but this is where the first major fault comes into play: there’s really not much else to do of substance besides fight enemies and stare at rather repetitive dungeon design. Stalwarts of the genre will by no means find themselves away from home here, but it has to be said that, outside of some small sidequests to follow, item creation, etc., you’ll be spending 99% of your time drudging in the depths.
Thankfully, the combat is, for the most part, solid and profound. You’ll instantly recognize a typical JRPG structure, but the tweaks made to that foundation are welcome. Following a turn-based structure, you’ll set the moves for your characters, who have the ability to attack, use a skill (basically magic), use an item, defend yourself, attempt to flee, and two special abilities, burst and unchain. After your moves are set, predictably, battle unfolds.
Now, the two special moves above are part of what shakes this stale formula up. While burst is a rather generic (though welcome in tight spots) super-powered attack, unchain provides a cool “monster-catching” ability. With a high charisma, or seemingly random luck at times, a monster will become “unchained” during combat and joins your party as a follower. You can wield up to three of these at once, and they prove to be quite handy: they’ll occasionally block attacks for you, attack alongside you for extra damage, and more, including leveling up with you. Sure, it’s rather simple, but there’s something that’s addictive about the whole thing.
All of these things come in handy during Unchained Blade’s battles, because things can get tough. Some higher level monsters will have their own followers that need to be defeated alongside them; the aid from your own followers is crucial at times, as well as the destructive burst attacks. Also, when you find yourself tirelessly combatting a room full of enemies and finally wiping them out, only to find out there were two full screens more of them, things can get a bit stressful. A decent amount of strategy is involved in these situations, of course, because any skills used on these enemies only effect the first “wave” of them. When up to 15 baddies are vying for your death, things can get heavy.
One particular type of battle, known as the Judgement Battle, seemingly occurs at random and is also a bit confusing. I may be missing something, but your followers just seem to start flying around the screen whilst d-pad directions scroll below. It seems like you’re supposed to correspond the directions until the enemy’s health reaches zero, but it often doesn’t work very well. The same can be said about a one-on-one confrontation with a minion and a foe, where you must jab at X for what seems like a thousand times until the enemy is bested. I can see the value in bolstering the type of encounters the game provides and switching things up from time to time, but this feels unneccessary as is.
Aside from battles, you can locate draw points on the map for items and such, or invest some time in your character. By finding items, you can bring them to town and create, improve, etc. things with the alchemist; it’s awfully simplistic, as all it takes is the correct items and some money, as well as a high proficiency, but I never really had an annoying amount of trouble trying to synthesize something. When I said “invest time” in your character, I basically mean skill points. Every time you level up, you’ll get some points to add to your skill map, which unlock skills. The skill map is completely visible from the get-go, so you’ll be able to decide exactly what direction you’ll want to go in. It’s simple, pain-free and invokes the same ideology as Skyrim or any other RPG out there.
How does it all culminate, then? Unchained Blades boils down to a solid experience.that, after hours of gameplay, won’t hold together quite as well as when it begins. Fans of the genre, of course, will likely celebrate the functionality that the game presents and how well it manages to stay interesting, even after dozens of hours of play, but I believe a lot of people could become frustrated at what is, effectively, a whole lot of repetition. That said? It’s not something that devalues the entire product. I’ve played RPGs that felt tired at the beginning of the game, much less than the seemingly endless amount of gameplay Unchained Blades provides. If you stick it out and find yourself growing restless and the game a bit tiresome, just take a break and come back to it in small chunks.
While Unchained Blades is far from perfect, it doesn’t do anything to detriment the overall dungeon-crawling experience. You may grow weary of its battle system and boring tunnel after tunnel of dungeons, you may find yourself annoyed with the Judgement battles and small quirks with combat, you might even find fault in things I found enthralling, but I doubt many fans of the genre will find themselves disappointed with this adventure. With an entertaining story, beautiful artwork, and solid gameplay mechanics, Unchained Blades does enough to pull itself out of the sea of mediocrity that is the dungeon crawling/JRPG genre on the PSP.
Final Score: B-
Note: That said, don’t go picking this up for the Vita just yet– XSEED is awaiting Sony’s approval to allow compatibility on the handheld, something that’s certainly puzzling for a brand-new game. If you don’t own a PSP but do have a 3DS, perhaps waiting to see how that version fares is the best plan of action at this time. The lack of Vita support isn’t a fault with the game itself, of course, so it doesn’t affect the review score.
- Go Dungeon-Crawling on PSN Next Month with Labrynth Legends