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Unchained Blades
Score: 86%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: XSEED Games
Developer: FuRyu Games
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: RPG/ Adventure/ Classic/Retro

Graphics & Sound:
There was a Volkswagen commercial long ago that made light of the fact that most mid-sized cars had done away with full-size spare tires. Two guys open up the trunk of the VW, stare lovingly, and express their surprise. Much the same reaction is expected when you realize that Unchained Blades is absolutely filled with spoken dialogue. Outside of A1, blockbuster franchise games, we didnít think developers invested in this stuff, but Unchained Blades proves us wrong. Not only is there a huge amount of good, well-written dialogue, itís performed and recorded by skilled voice actors. This adds a great deal to the ambiance. Even when characters arenít reading full lines, they utter short phrases or sounds to lend some emotion the lines theyíre delivering in the game.

Beyond all the great voice acting, Unchained Blades does a nice job with its visuals. There are real anime-inspired cut scenes, including some short sequences that appear as you enter new areas of the game world. Exploring dungeons is reminiscent of the first generation of 3D RPG titles, showing you a 3D rendering of your immediate surroundings. Battles break away to a 2D perspective, showing pictures of your opponents and simple animations representing battle. Short tutorial sequences break into the flow of play and visually highlight special features of the game, as you encounter new challenges. You can replay these tutorials and navigate through all kinds of background information on your characters and followers during play.


Gameplay:
Thatís right, we said followers. Unchained Blades is a merger of many good gaming ideas, not the least of which is the notion of capturing creatures in battle and taming them as your followers. Thereís definitely a bit of Pokemon at work, but Unchained Blades keeps focus on the player characters rather than the beasties. Through strategic combination of your followers and by simple interaction with them during the game, youíll unlock and augment abilities. Itís possible to go as far down this path as you can imagine during the game, but donít think that Unchained Blades is only about collecting pets. The thrust of the game is straightforward adventuring and dungeon crawling. It definitely feels like a throwback in the sense that you have to spend a lot of time traipsing around areas to build your charactersí abilities and level up. The ability to save anywhere makes Unchained Blades easy to pick up and put down in short intervals.

The storyline is interesting enough; a brash dragon is knocked down to human status after a severe bout of hubris, and must try to reclaim his former glory. Along the way, he gathers a band of fellow adventurers, and the whole thing takes on a bit of a Wizard of Oz twist. The difference here is that leading-man Fang seems as likely to battle the Wizard as to ask him for favors, but it was this same bluster and braggadocio that landed Fang at the bottom of the food chain originally... Because the characters are static and married to the storyline, replay value is slim. The best argument for a second or third round is the skill tree system. With this, you can choose to apply upgrade points across a wide enough array of skills that we doubt any two players will end up with exactly the same character stats and abilities. Super RPG fans may find this reason to have another go at Unchained Blades after the credits roll; for most of us, the flexibility is just a nice way to customize the play experience.


Difficulty:
Itís our job as crusty old gamers to say that all this timed-event, open-world stuff has made players soft on the classic RPG grind. Remember the good old days when that Floor 2 dungeon was standing between you and glory, and no amount of NPC chatter, pet taming, or item fabrication was going to change that? Nope, only dedicated grinding in the dungeon, fighting and healing and upgrading items was the key to success. Unchained Blades hasnít forgotten those days, but in bringing back a highly successful older model, developer FuRyu doesnít ignore other good recent trends. The adoption of followers is one example, but item fabrication is also included here. Collecting random objects throughout the world that you can combine to create more powerful items smacks of Monster Hunter, but contained neatly in a classic RPG package. Learning oneís limits (and the location of healing points) is more important than testing the odds or your twitch reflexes. The result is a slow-paced ramble through all the standard RPG conventions, which younger gamers may actually find challenging, compared to more modern RPG and adventure games that allow for faster leveling and branching stories. The linear nature of Unchained Blades makes it relatively easy for new RPG fans to jump in and play, but the array of upgrade and equipment options can be a bit dizzying. In the end, though, more is more when it comes to depth in the world of role-playing games.

Game Mechanics:
Weíve never met a game with auto-battle options that we didnít like... Okay, broad generalization there, but it IS great to rely on things like auto-battle when thereís so much grinding required. Another nice feature is the fact that Unchained Blades remembers which options you chose for each character, saving you the time of navigating menus even when you donít have auto-battle enabled. This comes in handy when you want to target specific enemies or leverage skills and spells. The range of special abilities is part of what makes battles fun, and Unchained Blades keeps things simple by prompting you with new menus choices when your characters meet the requirements to pull off these boost or chained attacks. Itís not that controlling these are difficult, but it can be hard to remember how your party needs to be configured to take maximum advantage of these abilities. One of the hardest things to do in Unchained Blades is navigate the wealth of menus that control equipment, items, party members, and followers. With two or three times the number of followers, compared to party members, things get pretty busy.

Unchained Blades does a decent job organizing things, but you can still get lost in the weeds. Core RPG fans who have been looking for exactly this experience will love the game; for casual or newbie players, there may be more commitment required here than you were expecting. Think of the spoken dialogue and great art as the candy coating around the hard pill youíre going to have to swallow, if you really want to see Fangís quest through to the end. All the small touches are what make this a blast to play, especially if you cut your RPG teeth on classics from the the 8- and 16-bit age.


-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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