"Those who appreciate a steep challenge and some great art will find a lot to love in Unchained Blades."
Five dragons walk into a bar. The bartender, a goddess, hails the lead dragon. "What'll ya have?" she asks. "To fight the strongest being in the world," he abruptly replies. The goddess uncorks a bottle labeled "wishes" and moves to serve the lead dragon a glass. "I'm not asking you for a wish," he snaps, stopping the goddess mid-pour. "I'm asking you where to find the strongest being in the world." The goddess, her countenance twisting with rage at being addressed with such impertinence, reseals the bottle and fixes her gaze on the dragon. "You would do well to learn some humility, child. In penance for your arrogance, I banish you from this bar and revoke your driver's license. Regain your strength and return to me, if you can. Also, your breath reeks of cheap whiskey. Get out."
And that's how Alcoholic Dragon Jerkface: The RPG begins.
Oh, wait, I'm supposed to be talking about Unchained Blades. Well, that game starts off in a similar fashion, but in a sky temple instead of a bar. The rest is more or less the same.
Unchained Blades is a first-person dungeon crawler, the likes of which are notoriously inaccessible to newcomers. They typically feature blank-slate characters, a bare-bones plot fleshed out through lore rather than cutscenes, and brutally difficult enemy encounters in perilous mazes rife with traps. Unchained Blades carves out a niche within a niche by putting an emphasis on story and character development while maintaining a high degree of customization. The intense level of difficulty remains, however, acting as an equal source of frustration and motivation. The overall structure is akin to games like Etrian Odyssey and Class of Heroes, but Unchained Blades has enough unique elements to stand apart from the crowd. It isn't going to suit everyone's taste, but fans of the genre and challenge-seekers will no doubt feel at home here.
Unchained Blades is the story of Fang, a pompous dragon emperor who, after ruffling the feathers of the goddess Clunea, is stripped of his powers and sent to the world below. Vowing revenge, he goes in search of the Titans: colossal, organic temples where wishes are granted to explorers who brave the goddess's trials within their murky depths. Along the way, he teams up with a cowardly golem prince, a ditzy spirit fox girl, a feisty phoenix princess, and several other colorful characters, all of whom seek to have a single wish made reality. These are fully fleshed-out people with quirks and agendas all their own, a welcome departure from the usual silent avatars present in other games of this type. The tale of Unchained Blades is told through (mostly) voiced dialogue and beautiful, albeit infrequent, anime cutscenes. They serve as an incentive to keep playing when the game repeatedly kicks your ass, which I assure you it will.
As Fang and his companions navigate dungeons and defeat monsters, they level up and gain skill points (SP), which are allocated on a branching skill grid unique to each character. It gives each party member flavor without taking away the player's ability to customize as they see fit. Unfortunately, SP cannot be reset, so if the player makes poor choices like I did early on (learning too many healing skills and not enough attack skills), fights are considerably tougher until the characters reach higher levels. Another important part of combat is the "follower" mechanic. Once a monster's HP drops below 50%, a red circle may randomly appear over them, at which point they can be "unchained" and join the party. Up to four followers can be assigned to each character, and their passive elemental affinities, called "anima," are necessary to perform most high-level skills. The sporadic rate at which monsters become unchainable can be frustrating, especially because the game sets up "judgment battles," large-scale skirmishes between followers, at certain intervals to act as makeshift checkpoints. They aren't insurmountable challenges; rather, they simply feel like pointless roadblocks that take a lot of grinding and a little luck to clear.
Indeed, the game's sheer level of difficulty is its most controversial aspect. Standard battles have the potential to wipe out an unprepared party, and bosses are equally brutal. The dungeons themselves are a threat, too, with hazards like toxic swamps and flooded pathways capable of causing instant death if the player doesn't exercise caution. Having the most updated equipment and a strategy for every floor is paramount. I spent over thirteen hours trying to clear the first Titan alone. As I said before, it's certainly not a game for the faint of heart, but when victory comes, it is undeniably sweet.
The eclectic cast of characters was created by several famous Japanese artists, ranging from pako (Shining Force EXA) and Toshiyuki Kubooka (THE IDOLM@STER) to one of my personal favorites, Kumichi Yoshizuki (Someday's Dreamers). Their various art styles are surprisingly cohesive, and the world design is consistently interesting. The dungeon graphics are adequate, though they aren't very important because the screen is typically occupied by character portraits or hand-drawn enemy sprites that animate slightly. Menus are a tad clunky, and I'm not especially fond of the game's font, but these are very minor quibbles.
The soundtrack is also a collaboration, though on a smaller scale. The venerable Nobuo Uematsu composed the main theme and world map theme, while the remainder of the tracks were composed by Tsutomu Narita, who happens to be a member of Uematsu's band EARTHBOUND PAPAS. The battle theme, "UNCHAINED," is an especially vivacious track with some synth breakdown that I couldn't help but tap along to every time it played. The various boss themes are kickin' as well, and each dungeon has a distinctly atmospheric background track. My only complaint is the lack of variety, since twenty songs don't stretch well across sixty-plus hours of gameplay. Voice acting is solid, featuring some high-profile talent like Troy Baker and Yuri Lowenthal. Characters are well-cast, being likeable at best and inoffensive at worst. I couldn't ask for more, really.
If you know what you're getting into, Unchained Blades is an enjoyable game that doles out pain and pleasure in equal capacity. Thanks in no small part to XSEED's quality localization, the story does a good job of keeping the player engaged and pushing him forward to their next objective. If the idea of frequent random deaths and punishing dungeons makes you want to throw your PSP, this may not be the game for you. Those who appreciate a steep challenge and some great art will find a lot to love in Unchained Blades.