Devleoper: FuRyu / Publisher: XSEED Games / Played On: 3DS / Price: $29.99 / ESRB: Teen [Violence, Blood, Use of Alcohol, Partial Nudity, Crude, Humor, Sexual Themes]
Don’t you just hate it when you get into a fight with a goddess and she turns your once supreme dragon body into that of a whiny, pathetic human? As ridiculous as it may sound, that’s just what happens in Unchained Blades, a new dungeon crawler for the Nintendo 3DS available exclusively through the online eShop. Intense grinding, a focus on character development, and a dull story keep Unchained Blades from being anything other than mediocre and a game that will only resonate with a precise crowd.
Clunea is a powerful goddess capable of granting any one wish to those brave and strong enough to reach her abode. After a confrontation with the goddess doesn’t go near as planned, the mighty Dragon Emperor Fang gets changed by the goddess into a young human male. Already an arrogant individual, Fang’s only desire now is to find Clunea and best her in combat and regain his lost body. As he begins the long journey, he runs into a crew of characters who are en route to see the goddess as well, so naturally they team up. As the party begins making its way through each dungeon, they discover harder monsters to defeat, as well as learn more about themselves, blah, blah, blah. The story in Unchained Blades does little that you haven’t already seen in countless other RPGs: Characters fit the same stereotypes you’re used to (headstrong lead character, misunderstood outsider, etc.), the overarching story is a boring tale of humility, and the plot is all too predictable. I felt that the story had potential to be something great, but instead it plods territory experienced RPG fans will find devastatingly familiar. When combined with the game’s grinding gameplay, it becomes a chore make progress.
Unchained Blades is a dungeon crawler drawing inspiration from games like Wizardry and the more current Etrian Odyssey series. It’s a first-person RPG where you navigate through maze-like dungeons, defeating monsters, growing in strength, and slowly advancing toward your ultimate goal. If one floor’s monsters are giving you a hard time, simply revisit an earlier floor with weaker enemies and level up until you can move forward and defeat the next level’s monsters. Do this repeatedly until you complete the game. So in essence you can sum up the majority of gameplay with one word: grinding.
It’s the nature of dungeon crawlers to be all about grinding, so that’s not a fault of the developers but rather the whole point. Unfortunately the other elements of the gameplay don’t mesh well with this emphasis. A sphere system reminiscent of Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid allows you to customize each character by spending skill points to increase desired attributes like strength and speed or learn new abilities and spells. Unlike Final Fantasy X, there isn’t a way to cross-class a character. Instead you’re given one group of spheres to work with and consequently little customization since you’re limited to the predetermined paths the developers have set out.
If your charisma is high enough, you have a chance of recruiting a monster you’re battling into joining your party. Taking a page almost directly from Pokemon, you have to weaken a monster first before you even have the option of “unchaining” it and claiming it as your own. Since you have to enter all attack commands for your party at once, you’re likely to weaken a monster and discover that you have a chance to unchain it only to have an ally defeat the monster with his or her next action. This makes unchaining monsters a rarity, which isn’t beneficial to the next aspect of gameplay. In order to advance into certain, oftentimes required, sections of a dungeon, you have to play a minigame involving your followers. Rather than enter traditional combat, your monster companions clash with an opponents’. While these guys are duking it out, you can input button commands a la Dance Dance Revolution to give your friends attack boosts. But since obtaining these monster allies is unnecessarily challenging, overcoming these battles become needlessly difficult roadblocks to the rest of the game. For a game that is already centered on grinding, this is another layer of grind in order to progress. Where’s Xzibit when you need him?
Aside from the above, the overall problem with the game is pacing. You never feel like you’re getting anywhere because the monsters on one floor will be pushovers and the ones on the next will kick your ass. Earning gold and experience is also slow and tedious. All of this combines to make a game that can only be recommended to the most dedicated of RPG fans.
I was honestly shocked when I saw the credits for the game and noticed Nobuo Uematsu, the famed composer of the Final Fantasy series, as one of the game’s composers. Even with his attachment, the game doesn’t stand out as anything special. The musical score isn’t particularly bad, it’s just not memorable. During the game’s cutscenes characters are fully voiced, but outside of cutscenes they only mutter occasional phrases or exclamations. It’s disappointing the game isn’t entirely voiced. Even though most of the dialogue is uninspired and bland, it would have been nice to have heard each line uttered by the characters themselves. Sound effects are also a mixed bag. The jingle that plays when resting sticks out as notably subpar, sounding strangely static-y.
Unchained Blades takes the sometimes begrudged aspect of grinding and embraces it. Levels upon levels of mazelike grinding coupled with the poorly implemented follower system make for a game that is both slow and tedious. If you’re dedicated enough and have the patience required to stick with the grind, you’ll discover dozens of hours of gameplay, along with cliché story and characters. Those of you looking for a more engaging, worthwhile, and ultimately enjoyable RPG should look past Unchained Blades and not look back.