Publisher: XSEED Games
Unchained Blades is a pretty unique, first-person dungeon crawler published by XSEED Games and previous only available on Sony’s PSP handheld, but has now made its way over to the Nintendo 3DS via a digital release on the eShop. It’s also well worth the asking price, digital only release or not, and if you’re at all a fan of games like Etrian Odyssey, then I’d urge you to give Unchained Blades a try.
It’s not entirely similar to EO from Atlus, but there are definitely some gameplay resemblances. One of the key ways that Unchained Blades sets itself apart from other dungeon crawlers is its emphasis on story elements. Instead of creating a party made up of typical RPG archetypes, you’ll take control of a number of pre-made characters, led by the brash and hot-headed king of dragons turned human, and a pretty eclectic band of followers that expand over time. It’s really one of the more unique casts of characters I’ve run across in an RPG for quite a while, and while their designs range from cool to pandering, their personalities are really diverse and the writing remains strong enough throughout to keep them interesting.
The core gameplay of Unchained Blades is focused around exploring titans, actual living beings that contain vast dungeons within their bodies that are filled with enemies, items, and other surprises. As the story moves you along from titan to titan, you’ll encounter various enemies that you can recruit to your team with a little luck and skill involved. This process is called unchaining, which isn’t entirely unlike recruiting Pokémon in Nintendo’s ever popular monster fighting franchise. Once you whittle an enemy’s health down by more than half in a fight, you’ll randomly get an opportunity to unchain that monster. This shows up as a new menu option, and when used, will trigger a small, timed mini-game that requires some quick reaction time on the player’s part in order to succeed. If successful, this monster will join your team and be added to your list of existing creatures.
These recruited monsters come into play in a variety of ways. You can equip each main party member with up to four creatures, which can in turn unlock new skills for their associated master, provided you match them up with like-minded monsters associated by elemental type. Monsters will also jump in randomly during battles as long as they are equipped, sometimes providing follow-up attacks, or occasionally taking a blow intended for their master.
There’s also large scale minion battles that will occasionally pop up, which sees your entire roster going toe to toe with a CPU group of monsters, requiring you to win by sheer numbers and by successfully timing inputs in conjunction with on-screen prompts, similar to popular music rhythm games. This isn’t quite as well realized as it could be; since you’re expecting musical cues to sort of match up with button prompts, which doesn’t happen here. But overall it’s a fun visual throwdown that changes up your standard battle formula quite a bit.
Outside of collecting new minions, you’ll be doing a whole lot of exploring. Titans are typically multi-floored affairs, giving you lots of branching paths, locked doors, hidden items, and harvesting points to make use of. You’ll need to do a fair amount of backtracking at times, and certain puzzles can be quite tough. Actually, the entire game can be pretty difficult, and it’s best to make use of the save anywhere feature as frequently as possible. This isn’t as soul-crushingly difficult as Etrian Odyssey, but for uninitiated dungeon explorers you’ll find a need to grind out levels a little more often than you might be used to.
And that need to grind early on can make the initial hours of Unchained Blades feel a little sluggish. It’s a great game once you get past a certain beginners hump, but I can certainly see the initial few hours have the potential to be off-putting to players that aren’t quite sure of what they are diving into. There are a lot of systems in place, including crafting and side missions, which take a while to feel like you’re making any sort of headway into them. And actual dungeon progression can take some time too, especially if you’re under-leveled for a new floor that you’ve just uncovered. And while I enjoyed the leveling system, which gives you access to expanding skill nodes that unlock attribute bonuses and new abilities, the more open ended nature of that skill board can be a little off-putting for those that like a little more direction out of their RPG mechanics.
But I’m certainly not going to hold these elements against the game, I just think it’s worth mentioning for those that want to dive in, but aren’t sure if this is the game for them. It’s well worth spending the time to learn these mechanics as thoroughly as possible early on, because after the initial few hours are past you’ll have a really hard time putting Unchained Blades down. It’s an entertaining romp in a side genre to RPG’s that doesn’t get enough love nowadays, and is well worth that digital asking price, provided you haven’t played the PSP version already.