|Title: Unchained Blades
Publisher: XSEED Games
Consoles: PSP / 3DS
Console Reviewed For: 3DS
Release Date: January 3rd, 2012
Rating: ESRB T
Almost six months ago, Unchained Blades was released for the Playstation Portable. Just a short time ago (after months of anticipation), one of the last hardcore RPGs on the PSP was released as one of the first games of its kind on 3DS. The latest game from XSEED/FuRyu isn’t alone on this particular platform, but it doesn’t have many contemporaries at all, not like it does on the PSP.
Fans of role-playing games on the 3DS were no doubt extremely satisfied by Devil Survivor: Overclocked, as well as other gems like Tales of the Abyss or The Denpa Men. But a good RPG has been hard to find on the system. So I kind of picture the majority of people reading this review to have the following mindset: Last Thursday, you rushed onto the eShop, eager to grab the next great RPG… and then you were mortified when you saw the price-tag associated with it.
$29.99 for a download game?! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the price is that high. But—you get what you pay for. Unchained Blades isn’t just a downloadable game that you can expect to be done with in the span of 10-20 hours. People interested in this game should be aware that it’s a full retail game overseas that just so happens to be digital-exclusive in the West. Unchained Blades isn’t something quick and sloppy—it’s a full game that demands your full attention, and reaching the credits will likely take even the most grizzled RPG veteran no less than fifty hours.
With that important sentiment in mind, I’d like to address everything Unchained Blades has to offer those of us who patiently waited for its release. Our continued coverage has no doubt shown off some of the star-power associated with this game, so I’m not about to bore you with details you already know. But for those who may not have heard about this game, realize this: the game’s presentation (including graphics, music, voice-work, and the like) is spectacular, to say the least.
Everything your eyes take in is nothing short of breath-taking. The game features an abundance of fully animated cut-scenes with beautifully drawn characters. Every environment these characters grace is eye-candy, every enemy is unique. This world has a lot of life breathed into it, and I imagine that’s what captured a lot of people’s interest regarding this game when it was first announced.
The soundtrack is certainly praise-worthy as well. And Heaven knows the game needs it, because players will no doubt spend countless hours hearing the same tunes over and over again. A soundtrack that’s anything less than superior would probably hinder the game’s overall experience. Again, expect greatness. The combined audio-visual experience will no doubt be enough to lure people in, even if the price-tag seems a little steep.
The more I’m thinking on this, the more this comparison seems appropriate to draw: Unchained Blades is a living, breathing anime. Artistry, soundtrack, voice-work, etc—it functions just as any anime should. Same goes for its story, which is entertaining to a fault, but is also filled with many tropes specific to the culture our audience can’t help but love.
An arrogant Dragon Emperor, Fang (who you can name, along with almost every other playable character in the game), seeks the Goddess Clunea. She has the power to grant any wish. Brazen and foolish, Fang manages to really tick off the goddess when they meet, and she responds by putting the punk and his friends in their place—by stripping them of all their power and leaving them to grace the world as their weak, human forms that they had when they were much younger.
Arrogant Fang responds to being dissed with even more anger. As a matter of fact, that almost overbearing sense of confidence and lack of concern for anything or anyone else carries players through the first major portion of the game. But I assume, even after hearing my brief explanation alongside the fact that this game stays true to anime tropes, you can predict the overall outcome of the story—and you’d be right, for the most part.
Fang’s isn’t the only story to be told, however. There’s also a Phoenix princess and a mysterious, brooding gentleman from the Reaper clan—all who talk plenty of wishes and desires. So, what we’ve got here is an ultimately predictable story that yields little psychological value, but heaps of entertainment value. There are a myriad of interesting characters to meet and play as, and their interactions with each other and what happens to them are worth progressing through the game to see and hear, but if you go into this game expecting a groundbreaking story, you’ll likely be disappointed.
Beyond the Presentation
Be Mindful of the Genre:
If everything I’ve said about Unchained Blades so far has been enough to sell you, I must offer a word of caution before you run off to make your purchase: this game is difficult. Pain-staking, you’re-a-better-person-than-me-if-you-don’t-throw-your-3DS-against-the wall DIFFICULT. While this may seem like par for the course when judging this game against others similar to it like Etrian Odyssey or Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey—I’m speaking primarily to those who are not familiar with the genre.
The game grants you the ability to save anywhere, and urges you to save often. Because…when you go into a random battle, you can and will die at the drop of a hat. For goodness sake folks, this isn’t the type of game to let an hour go by without saving. The monster selection is far too unpredictable for that. If you advance from one floor to the next without much caution, you can go from “comfortable combat” to “completely destroyed.” I don’t consider this, nor the ungodly amount of grinding you’ll be doing, a detriment to the game at all. Many of you who’ve made it this far already know this kind of thing going into a game like Unchained Blades, but I have to be mindful of those who don’t.
This game is not for newcomers to the dungeon-crawling experience, unless you’re extremely patient with it and willing to complete this game’s long journey over a longer period of time.
How this game is very much like a typical dungeon-crawler:
Explore. Meet monster. Fight monster. Get schooled (sometimes instantly, sometimes after a while). Return to town with enough cash to buy your means to return to town again (i.e. buying another Sigil) and maybe enough extra to grab a piece of armor from the store, or enough materials to synthesize that same armor for pennies on the dollar compared to what you’d pay for just grabbing it off the shelf… until, after an hour or two, you’re a much higher level than you were before. After that, things get easier, until you reach a deeper part of the dungeon with more powerful foes and repeat the same cycle over and over again.
The level design and dungeons offer plenty of what one would expect. Mazes with dead-ends. Portions with water where you can only take a set amount of steps before you drown. Lava, pitfalls, treasures, rooms where you’re pulled into battle instantly and absolutely destroyed (seriously, folks—save often). This kind of stuff is what fans of the genre expect… and eagerly anticipate. More power to you, ladies and gentlemen! You’re sure to enjoy the familiar aspects of the game. Familiarity is definitely something Unchained Blades does exceptionally well.
How this game does things differently than a typical dungeon-crawler:
And, here’s where things get dicey, folks. There’s several things to keep in mind when approaching Unchained Blades beyond what I’ve already covered, the first of which is the concept of Masters and Followers. The player controls up to four “Masters” in a party—Fang and other characters are fully functional in battle. In addition to having access to four playable characters at one time, the player also has to manage up to thirty monsters that can travel with the group. These are the Followers, monsters you recruit in battle with your Charisma and a little lucky button-pressing.
What do followers do? They can absorb or deflect attacks for you. Your conversations with them after battles or in-town (which work a lot like those found in Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, where you give answers that make your followers happy or mad, and the like) help or hinder their ability to do so, can sometimes net you items, and of course—make you more and more capable of recruiting the game’s endless variety of enemies. Each enemy is assigned an element and anima—two words to keep in mind, because a Master’s anima (e.g. what Followers you carry with you—you can have up to four at one time) determine what magic spells and skills you have access to in battle. That’s right—even if your dedicated healer has learned a Revive spell through leveling up—if s/he doesn’t have the right Followers, s/he cannot use the spell.
Is this added challenge, or simply convoluted? I could never fully decide.
I’ll tell you a few things that are convoluted though. One: the method of recruiting these monsters. The game gets the name “Unchained Blades” from your ability to “Unchain” in battle. Randomly, if your charisma stats are high enough, an enemy can become recruitable and the Unchain command will be unlocked in battle. I cannot stress the randomly part of the above statement enough though—because most of the time, the monster you really want to recruit will become Unchain-able… right before the next character in line delivers the finishing blow in battle. This game would have truly benefited from the ability to stop all characters from acting in battle when the Unchained command becomes accessible. Unfortunately though, there’s no stopping a character from his or her actions, so recruitment can only be considered a hindrance at best.
The other convoluted part of gameplay involving Followers is actually a major part of the game: Judgment Battles. This is a crazy way of introducing a rhythm game into a dungeon crawler that pits your army of followers against an army of the temple’s monsters. Your army’s morale and ability to fight are affected by your ability to press the proper directions on the D-pad, and occasionally the L and R buttons if times are tough. Also relevant: A Master can randomly intercede in the flow of battle to turn the tide.
Judgment Battles are a mandatory part of the game. They block access to optional treasure sometimes, but other times they block you from bosses and story-progression. Sometimes they only have you command an army of say, 16-18 followers to win, while other times the enemy army is something like 23-26, forcing you to command a full army of 30-really-aggrevating-to-recruit monsters in order to progress. And in the plentiful Judgment Battles I experienced, my entire army mauled every enemy but one or two…which acted as a wall that destroyed my entire team.
Frustrating. The only proper way to address the issue of being stuck in a Judgment Battle is to release the weakest of monsters you’re currently carrying and go…recruit new ones. Randomly. …Randomly. Suffice to say, I was sufficiently angered by the concept of judgment battles by the end of the game’s first major dungeon, and I spent the remainder of my experience with Unchained Blades absolutely dreading the concept of Followers and Judgment.
Beyond Masters and Followers is the concept of Skill Trees. Think Final Fantasy X here at best. A Master gains experience in battle, and when he levels up, the player determines stat growth, abilities and spells learned, the types of monsters you’re more capable of recruiting, and even weapon proficiency by unlocking various nodes on a skill tree with the 2 skill points earned from leveling up. Bare in mind: even if you unlock a skill on the skill tree, you cannot use it if you don’t have the right anima—again stressing the importance of followers.
The game’s battles themselves aren’t really noteworthy, except a few differences. One of these differences: sometimes the game pits your three or four characters against a great number of enemies. Where a game like Dragon Quest would limit your field of vision to one group of enemies that you take out, this game can and will randomly pit you against several groups of enemies. To stop yourself from becoming completely overwhelmed, you have to focus all attacks on the leader of each group. Kill a group’s Master, and his followers become less and less capable of fighting back.
Boss battles are no joke, either. Each boss has multiple tiers that are reminiscent of some final bosses in your traditional JRPG fodder. Beating them is certainly a bragging right, a payoff that’s ultimately worth it in my opinion.
So, there’s that: Unchained Blades seems like your typical dungeon-crawler with a few twists. Fun times! A few flawed concepts, but I’m sure once your level is high enough (say around Lv25, about ten hours into the game), you’ll have a good army of Followers, and a good feel for the game and your characters, and you’ll be fine. Right?
Wrong. Because the game is more than just Fang’s story, after a certain point you move on from controlling Fang and his group of travelers to then controlling the Phoenix princess you left behind in the game’s prologue—who has two friends with her, no followers, and are all back at Level 1. Sure enough, at the end of building up another cast of characters and getting used to their skills and their followers you’ve amassed, the game does this to you a third time.
Half the reason this game takes so long to complete is because the game forces you to control three different groups of people, all who start off at Level 1 despite increased player proficiency with the game. It’s like having the two Golden Sun games on one cartridge—after countless hours with one group, you’re switched off to the next. Only, there’s nearly as much rich storytelling to be had among the individual groups, so the character switches are far more likely to frustrate and leave folks accusing this game of being artificially lengthened than it is to leave them motivated to continue on.
Unchained Blades has two chief concerns: presentation and motivation. Everything the game has to offer your senses is superior. You’ll like what you see and hear, and if you’re susceptible to it, you’ll like the game’s characters, story, and tropes. And, provided you’re extremely familiar with the typical dungeon-crawling experience, you’ll have plenty of motivation to buy the game and be interested in it for countless hours.
But—by the end, I wasn’t having fun anymore. The gameplay has its strengths, don’t get me wrong. But there are far too many aspects of Unchained Blades that amount to cumbersome at best (even beyond challenging enemies and expected grinding—I’m referring specifically to Followers, Judgment Battles, and the switching between protagonists who all start out at Level 1 that make up the first three chapters of this seven chapter game) that will prevent everyone except the most dedicated out there from reaching the end of the game.
If you are the extremely dedicated: run, don’t walk to the eShop, and buy a game you’ll likely call amazing that will entertain you for hours and hours, with only the few set-backs related to Followers that I mentioned, but that you’ll no doubt come to terms with. Unchained Blades seems to be a classic case of “many will buy, but few will finish”.
This game is superior to its contemporaries in terms of aesthetics and presentation, but its attempts to set itself apart have only hindered it in the end. While there were plenty of moments where I found myself smiling, the game’s numerous flaws have left me bitter in the end, hesitant to recommend this game to everyone, way more likely to recommend this game to a few.
Review Code supplied by Publisher/Developer