Unchained Blades ReviewJoe Shaffer
It's funny how an opinion can shift while playing through a game. I first thought that Unchained Blades would be a diamond in the rough. While J-RPGs as a whole haven't been up to scratch lately, there was the promise of first-person dungeon crawling. I decided at that moment that the game was destined for greatness. I couldn't not play it! Sadly, my predetermined love for the game slipped away in a single cutscene. There our protagonist, a dragon emperor, crossed paths with an angel. You would have thought with a title like "dragon emperor" that the guy would have spoken with a booming godlike voice, one that commanded respect and struck fear in the hearts of his opponents. The voice I heard sounded like a cross between Burt Reynolds and Steve Gttenberg. I expected a crushing, if overly dramatic, speech from the emperor. Yet what did I get from him? "Yeah, well, screw you!" just before swatting the angel like a fly for no particular reason.
I wasn't totally crushed, but that scene had burned itself into my mind. A little thing called bias found its way into my heart and settled there. I would not acknowledge anything that Unchained Blades did properly. Though I had given up on the game, it had not given up on me.
As I slipped into the first dungeon, I felt a slight pang of recognition. These were the same first-person stomping grounds I experienced in games like Anvil of Dawn, Swords and Serpents, and Arcana. That put me at at ease, but not enough that I let my bias go. Other familiar factors showed their faces. Random turn-based battles appeared, filled with monster straight out of any other RPG (inspired by folklore, of course). Simple commands--attack, magic, item--were all I needed. With the appearance of each familiar feature, I felt more at home. Still I desired more, and thought for sure this game wouldn't deliver.
Other features surprised me. It turned out Unchained Blades fancied itself a quasi-Pokemon game. Now and then an enemy would enter into "unchain" status, given that its HP had dropped below half and it remained alive. I could then have one of my characters "unchain" the creature and turn it into a follower, which is like a bodyguard. Each playable character can have up to four followers. During battle, followers will sometimes take shots for characters or attack an enemy after its master's turn for extra damage. But there was more to followers than even that. Each one has a different attribute attached to it called an "anima." In order to access certain skills, masters had to have followers with certain animas. It didn't matter if the animas came from one follower or a combination of a few, as long as they were all present.
Unfortunately, I couldn't give followers commands. They acted of their own volition. Often I had to tell a few of them to scram so I could make room for other followers. Depending on their moods when they left, they sometimes gave me animas that I could attach to later followers. It wasn't until I got towards the end of the first major dungeon that I learned what followers were really for, though. Now and then I fought what were called Judgment Battles, where I'd pit all of my followers against a large group of monsters controlled by the computer. From there, the two teams would duke it out while I inputted various buttons like a rhythm game. Honestly, these battles weren't terribly exciting, but they were useful in letting you know whether or not you had a solid army of followers. What was truly irritating about them was that my victory was pretty much predetermined. No matter how well I performed in rhythmic button-pressing, if I didn't have a solid enough group of followers, I lost. Give me strategic battles any day over glorified pass/fail mini-games.
Even though Judgment Battles were a tiny drag, I still found myself getting more and more into the game. I loved delving deeper into convoluted dungeons filled with traps. Each new floor brought new enemies and more followers to obtain. With each new level, I entered a skill grid similar to Final Fantasy X's sphere grid. After attaining a new level, I could choose two new items on the grid that either increased stats or bestowed new skills or passive abilities. It was excellent watching my group grow and seeing each character fall into various useful roles.
As I explored, I found various areas to scrape for loot, or completed various quests for extra cash and items. Now and then I'd find an area to harvest timber, plants or minerals. Taking these items, as well as various crafting items gained from battles, I could create new equipment and consumables. I sold whatever I didn't need and raked in the dough. Unfortunately, I didn't get a storage space until halfway through the game, so I really had to learn to manage my items wisely. To me, this is what dungeon crawlers are all about. I love completing tasks while finding more items and customizing characters. In that respect, Unchained Blades succeeded.
Just the same, though, it could have been better.
I've always loved the Etrian Odyssey trilogy. These games exemplified what first-person dungeon crawlers should be. They featured deep customization, creatable characters, a hefty but fair challenge, loads of loot, and lots of quests ranging from simple to tough. In fact, a lot of first-person dungeon crawlers are this way. There are a few effective elements missing from Unchained Blades, but most of them are there. I would have enjoyed the game more were it more challenging, more customizable, and less limited and story-driven. It makes up for the lack of customization, though, by giving us followers. With that, the game totally won me over.
Bit by bit, my bias slipped. As I guided my entourage through dungeon after dungeon, eager to see what new features and perils the game had to show off, I found myself becoming more and more immersed. I enjoyed my time with Unchained Blades despite some of its disappointments. Even if it's not a top choice, it's still a worthy addition to any J-RPG fan's library. Just don't expect it to blow your socks off.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.