Unchained Blades: This crawl’s familiar but refreshing

July 10, 2012

The dungeon-crawler and I have a tough relationship. It’s one of those love-hate things, those rare occurrences when I can completely understand why masochistic gamers keep plugging away at them despite being repeatedly beaten down. There’s some sort of addictive pleasure to keep going, even when the game rips everything away from you. Unchained Blades (thankfully) manages to properly balance both the oddly-addictive challenge with a good dose of fun that will appeal to the core dungeon JRPG fan as well as the uninitiated.

Unchained Blades follows a large and, quite literally, colorful cast of forgivably-JRPG-cliche characters on a long and arduous trek to meet the Goddess Clunea. Clunea – an omnipotent goddess with gravity-defying breasts – has the power to not only grant any power asked of her, but also take it away. Thus kicks off our story about Fang, a dragon lord whose hubris offends Clunea and causes her to turn him from a dragon back to his powerless ‘fledgling’ form, a human teenager. Fang vows vengeance against Clunea and is joined by the aforementioned colorful cast he meets along the way, all with wishes they want fulfilled by the goddess’ trials.

The plot is rather simple and not anything particularly game-changing, but you don’t really expect this level of build-up in this genre. It’s quite refreshing and, while the characters are a tad bit of the stock anime stereotype variety, they are still given enough character to be enjoyable. (In most cases.) While not particularly deep, they never really do anything to make me loathe them. Even Fang in his kind of ridiculous “Troy Baker tough guy,” like half the characters Troy Baker has ever voiced, is oddly endearing and quite funny. There’s just the occasional hiccup that results from the rather strange character design. Every character in the main cast was designed by a different artist known for game or anime work, ranging from Shining Force EXA to even The Idolm@ster. For the most part all the character designs mesh well, or at least acceptably, but occassionaly it can be head-scratching in the case of the shrinking violet Lapis or Clunea, who was designed by the artist for Bastard!!

The gameplay is where Unchained Blades really shines. It’s not necessarily revolutionary, but it’s easy to lose track of time playing it and it adds some interesting features to liven things up. The two biggest additions are the leveling mechanic and the Follower system. The leveling system is basically a different take on the sphere grid from Final Fantasy X, without the spheres. It gives a more creative approach to taking different directions through leveling and skill learning than just inputting numbers into a skill list.

The Follower system is more like a monster-catching mechanic. Every “Master” (or playable character) is allowed up to four followers (monster companions). You cannot control the followers directly, but they will counter or block enemy combatants randomly in battle. Countering isn’t particularly useful since they do very little damage, but the blocking is quite useful. While you can’t predict when it’ll happen, sometimes strong followers are the only thing standing between you and a boss wiping the last remaining party member before they can revive your crew. On the whole, the combination of new features and classic JRPG gameplay keeps Unchained Blades from getting too stale while still providing a traditional experience.

Unchained Blades is not without its faults, however. In an effort to make the game more accessible to newcomers to the genre, the game is absolutely littered with tutorials in the first so many hours. In a genre you expect to be a challenge, there is a mite too much handholding for the first couple of hours. It’s completely unnecessary as well, considering the first hour or so also features a grizzled old guide to help you out whenever necessary. Being familiar with the genre through much more unforgiving games as Etrian Odyssey and Wizardry, it was a little trying to my patience for me to sit through that many unskippable tutorials. It’s hardly a reason not to play the game, but know what you’re getting into.

The other glaring fault is a bit more of an effort to keep the game more difficult. In the first three chapters, you start each chapter with a party of level-one characters. It’s hard to go into too much detail without spoiling the plot, but it’s like having the rug pulled out from under you for a few hours. It’s nothing world-ending, but having to lose all my items, money, and levels not once, but twice, for two chapters was a tad infuriating. Mind you, I got it all back by the last chapter of the game, but nonetheless, it was a bit of a road bump in what is otherwise a very enjoyable experience.

Unchained Blades has been more than worth my time. It’s a good mix of fun and the sort of challenge I expect from the genre, while not being so challenging that it stops being enjoyable. Despite its shortcomings, the game is well worth the time of both people who are both fans of the genre and those who wish to give the genre a try. It’s the kind of experience you can get so into that you don’t realize when the hour count has gone from six to sixteen.

Pros: Solid gameplay, entertaining characters, engaging battle mechanics
Cons: Some strange game design choices, excessive tutorials

Score: 4/5

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