Unchained Blades Review
This game was reviewed on PlayStation Portable
What do you get when you cross Monster Hunter with the Dungeon Master series and The Wizard of Oz? You get Unchained Blades! This latest PlayStation Portable game from XSEED brings some classic flavor to the JRPG genre. But is it compelling enough to get fans on this side of the pond to wipe the dust off of their PSP once again? Let’s find out!
You are Fang, Dragon Emperor and the most powerful dragon in the world. You and your clan make your way to Clunea’s temple. Clunea is a reclusive goddess, who watches over the world she created in the Temple of the Skies high above the clouds. It is said that she grants a single wish to those who make their way to her domain. Fang seeks her out and demands that she tell him who the most powerful being in the world is, so he can fight them and prove that he is the strongest of all.
For his insolence, Clunea takes away Fang’s power, turns him back into a young adolescent human (humans, when they reach maturity, change into their grown up form often being that of some type of monster or fantastical being) and hurls him down into the Temple of Trials. Now, seeking his revenge on Clunea, Fang must ascend through the Temple of Trials and overcome the Titans in order to recover his power and the goddess. However, Fang cannot accomplish this alone, and must join with others who are seeking out Clunea to have their miracles granted as well.
Unchained Blades is a Japanese RPG with elements from classic first-person dungeon crawlers in the same vein as the old Dungeon Master series (or if you’re not as old as I am, the Legend of Grimrock) and combines it with the turn-based style combat of a typical JRPG. The game’s primary focuses are on combat and story; however, a number of other elements are added, including an alchemy system (for creating items), monster hunting, and character development. Each of these systems is fairly simple in execution, allowing both enthusiasts of the genre, as well as those new to the world of RPGs, to enjoy the game without being overwhelmed by cumbersome mechanics.
Combat is turn-based, with each of your characters having the same options across the board: Attack, Skill, Item, Guard, Escape, as well as two special abilities: Burst and Unchain. Once you have selected your action for your group members, or Masters, combat begins with each combatant (both ally and enemy) taking turns performing their specified actions. The Burst ability becomes available to your characters after their Burst Gauge (a small half-moon meter on the side of the HP and MP bar) fills up. These Burst attacks deal a devastating amount of damage to a single group of enemies in comparison to the character’s standard attacks or skills. Unchain is an ability that can become available when a monster is below 50% of their health, provided a Master’s charisma ranking is sufficiently high enough. Unchain allows the player to capture a monster through a mini-game where you have a pair of concentric rings. The player must make a timed button press as a third ring shrinks down between the other two rings with the goal of landing this third ring in between the other two. If the player succeeds in doing so, the monster becomes “Unchained” and joins the group as a follower. An unsuccessful attempt means you get to keep fighting them.
Each group member can also have up to three Followers in battle. These monsters can perform synchronized attacks with their Masters and will sometimes even stand in the way of an incoming attack to protect their Master. They will also level up alongside their Masters, increasing their own stats to make them more effective in battle. Higher-level monsters encountered in dungeons are capable of having Followers as well; however, unlike your group, if you eliminate the Master monster, the Followers remain and must still be defeated separately. The loss of a Master, though, will typically have some sort of negative effect on the Follower monsters’ performance such as a loss in stats, or they become “bound” and unable to do anything for a number of turns.
Followers also help your character increase their charisma. Throughout the game, your Followers will stop you on occasion and ask you a question, usually pertaining in some way to their self-confidence. Your answer will determine not only your Follower’s mood, but will also increase or decrease your charisma ranking depending on the result from your response. The downside of this system is that you never know exactly what kind of response to give your follower, as often the answer that would make sense is the wrong one. For example, a follower approached one of my Masters and said, “Just because you’re small, doesn’t mean that you’re weak, right?” to which I responded, “Of course!”. That was the wrong answer, my follower became sad, and I lost charisma points.
Another interesting feature with Unchained Blades‘ battle system is the fact that you can encounter multiple screens of enemies in a single battle. This adds a new twist to the RPG battle dynamic, in that unlike most RPGs, if you cast a spell (or skill, as is the case in Unchained Blades) that affects multiple enemies, it will only affect the enemies on the target screen, leaving the other groups unharmed. This forces you to strategize a bit more than the typical role-playing game if you’re to win a big battle like this effectively.
On occasion, your character will call his Followers to battle on their own in a mini-game form of combat known as a Judgment Battle. Here, your minions will bounce across the screen, meeting the enemy in battle. At the bottom of the screen, a number of arrows will scroll towards the middle. You must press the associated direction on the D-pad when the arrow on the screen reaches the glowing square in the middle to make a successful attack. You must continue to do so until either your or the enemy’s health bar (indicated at the top of the screen) reach zero. Furthermore, you may run into an occasion where a single Follower goes up against an enemy in one-on-one combat. Your job then is to rapidly tap on the X button to help your Follower push the enemy off screen. If you succeed, you win the battle.
Finally, at the end of each battle, you’ll be given a scorecard on your performance that includes bonuses for everyone surviving, and penalties for things like taking damage or a Master dying.
When you’re not battling enemies in the many dungeons you’ll encounter, you’ll come across draw points where you’ll be able to excavate ingredients to be used in creating potions, weapons, armor, and equipment such as pickaxes, trowels, and saws (which are required for excavating more goods). You can find these draw points by watching your map display, which will glow from blue, to yellow, to red until you find the excavation point. While the idea is novel, it leaves you to pay even more attention to the map of the dungeon instead of concentrating on the environment around you, breaking the immersion that so many game makers look for, making it feel more like a pen-and-pencil RPG than a dungeon crawler.
These ingredients can be taken to your friendly neighborhood alchemist in town to synthesize the items. Successful synthesis requires not only having the right ingredients (and a little gold as a fee), but a high proficiency as well. Proficiency is essentially your percentage chance of successfully synthesizing an item. If a synthesis is botched, then you lose not only the ingredients you used for the recipe, but the fee you paid to the alchemist as well. Your proficiencies increase, however, the more often you create items.
Skills (essentially spells) are learned through the Skill Map. With each level increase, you are granted two skill points to apply to the map. The Skill Map is represented by a number of pendants that are chained together, each containing skills and stat boosts to apply your points to. The graphical representation of these Skill Maps is quite simple in its execution and makes it very easy for you to strategize on how you want your Masters to grow. You can actually view the entire map if you so desire so you can plot out exactly what skills and stats you want to concentrate on without having to guess as to where the next link in the map will take you.
The game looks and feels much like the classic dungeon crawlers of yore, such as the aforementioned Dungeon Master series. You’ll move through a dungeon in a first-person perspective in a grid-type fashion where each forward movement is essentially a square on a map (remember the pen-and-paper RPG analogy?). The environments are pretty varied, but many environments are laid out in a very blocky fashion with few objects having a lot of depth or curves, and the textures on the walls and floors quickly become repetitive and boring. However, you’ll hardly have time to notice this as your eyes are usually fixed on the dungeon map to watch for the indication of draw points.
Outside of the look of the dungeons, the art for the game is exceptional. The human form characters that are drawn are each unique in fashion that alludes to the mature form that they’ll take later on in life. For example, Fang sports a fashionable outfit adorned with scales and horned shoulders, to make his appearance quite dragon-esque. The depiction of females, like in many Japanese RPGs, is something that might be a bit of a turn-off for gamers of the female persuasion. Many of the females depicted in the game are often rather bustily drawn, and even their armor selections are quite tasteless in title. Fortunately, when you equip the girl characters with armor upgrades (such as the Bondage Suit), the character’s avatar remains the same, so you don’t have to worry about their clothing shrinking as they gain better armor.
Anime enthusiasts will recognize Troy Baker’s voice (Full Metal Alchemist, Bleach) as he takes on the lead role as Fang, and does a superb job in doing so. As a matter of fact, all of the voice actors do a fantastic job with their lines to compliment the great writing in Unchained Blades – which is a good thing, because there’s a lot of it. And while the game is full of the typical personality types found in most JRPGs (the lone wolf, disgruntled, warrior type, or the shy, soft spoken mage that wields a great power, etc.), the way they bring these characters together and slowly form the bonds of camaraderie really makes the story a personable one with many likeable characters that you might even miss when you’re away from your PSP.
Unchained Blades most certainly isn’t a flawless game. Aside from the aforementioned issues with the dungeon map taking up most of your attention, and somewhat bland dungeon environments, the lack of a real world map detracts as well as you can only select points of interest on a map, rather than going off to explore the realm outside of the dungeons. But with a solid story, likeable characters, and a ton of variety in the gameplay experience, Unchained Blades simply pushes all of the right buttons for JRPG enthusiasts and newcomers alike. It would have been nice to have the game available on the PlayStation Vita as well, but if you’re like me and holding on for dear life to your PSP even though you have a Vita, this is most definitely a title that you’ll want to grab.
Unchained Blades receives a 4.25/5.
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