Review: Unchained Blades (PSP)

The dungeon crawler genre has found a home on the DS with titles like the Etrian Odyssey series, Dark Spire, and Strange Journey gracing the system. The only game of this ilk the PSP has gotten is Class of Heroes, though that game had a tepid reception at best. XSEED also released Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls and its DLC, The Red Shadow of the Sister, on PSN for the PS3, so a game like Unchained Blades is not out of their milieu. Let’s see if it gives PSP and Vita owners a good dungeon crawling fix.

Unchained Blades
System: PlayStation Portable
Developer: FuRyu
Publisher: XSEED Games
Release Date: June 26, 2012
MSRP: $29.99 (PSN only)

The game starts off with a dragon emperor named Fang. He journeys to the goddesss Clunea, who grants a wish to anyone who can reach her. She does not take kindly to his insolence and reverts him into a fledging with the body of a teenage boy. Along the way, more colorful characters both in personality and in aethetics are introduced, and eventually, they all unite to tackle the Titans together. Dungeon crawlers in this vein aren’t known for their long sprawling tales, though there is more story here than you’d expect. It helps in providing a reason for the long treks through each dungeon, and there are some amusing scenes.

While the translation is well done, I noticed some issues with the way the text is displayed. Some of the text was oddly spaced, extra spaces appeared around quotation marks and apostrophes, and not all the text was aligned properly. These were especially glaring in the beginning, though I still spotted some alignment and spacing issues here and there. There were typos like, “wanted save your village,” though those weren’t too prevalent. The text itself was readable, so it’s really only an aesthetics issue, but it’s a bit off-putting.

There are a few animated cutscenes for major events and the opening, which look good and flow smoothly. Different artists drew each character, and while you can see the variations in style and perhaps recognize some styles from other games, they all blend well together. The fact that the characters are meant to be different species helps as it provides a reason for them to look so different and helps keep the differences from becoming too jarring. Stills showing the outside of each dungeon are beautiful and detailed, and I always enjoyed seeing them whenever I went back into one. Enemies and bosses are detailed and drawn with clean line art, and the latter are multi-tiered, which makes fighting them feel epic. By contrast, each dungeon follows a different theme, but all the hallways inside look almost the same from one floor to the next. All the voice acting is in English, and the voices are fine over all and fit the stereotype of each character. Since you can rename your party members, their names aren’t voiced.

A good number of big names were involved in the development this game. Among them is Nobuo Uematsu, who composed the main theme and world map theme. The rest of the soundtrack was composed by Tsutomu Narita, who is a member of Uematsu’s band Earthbound Papas. In addition, Toshio Akashi, who worked on the Lunar series, was the director; and Takashi Hino, who worked on Grandia, was the scenario designer. Fourteen artists drew the character art, such as Toshiyuki Kubooka, who did the Lunar series; Kazushi Hagiwara, who also drew Bastard!!; and Sunaho Tobe, who did Hexyz Force.

The controls are pretty standard fare and work well. Square opens the Party Menu, Select enlarges and minimizes the floor map in dungeons, triangle brings up the dungeon map, the trigger buttons let you strafe, and the analog and d-pad both let you walk, though with the d-pad you turn using left and right and walk forward or backwards using the up and down buttons. While the last part might seem like it would be clunky, it works for this game given that you never have to move quickly to dodge something. Towns and maps are navigated through menus, and dungeons are viewed in first person perspective.

Some gameplay mechanics help set this game apart from other games in the genre. Each character can have up to five followers, provided they have enough Command Points, which are obtained by unchaining enemies and go up with charisma level. The opportunity to unchain enemies comes up randomly after an attack, but a higher charisma level helps your odds. The actual unchaining entails timing pressing X to stop a circle within the unchaining symbol. Stronger enemies will require you to do this more times, and each time the circle has to be within the last one you stopped. Followers can perform followup attacks and defend their master by either absorbing the damage or deflecting it altogether. How often they do so depends on their mood: the better the mood, the more often they’ll followup or defend. In addition, followers have one to four types of anima, and link skills require specific types of anima. Releasing a maxed follower will yield the leftmost anima, which you can attach to another follower.

Judgement battles pit your followers against an opponent’s followers and involve pressing arrows when they reach the red square, like in a rhythm game. If your opponents’ followers seem to be dominating your own, you can help even the odds by activating a Brave Jewel to strengthen them for a time. At some points a one-on-one follower battle will ensue, and you then have to mash the X button to push the opponent back. If you lose a judgement battle, you’re booted out of the room and can’t retry the battle until you exit and reenter the dungeon. You can circumvent that by saving before you attempt the battle and reload if it doesn’t go your way.

One quibble I have is that I wish there were a way to choose to dump on the spot if you unchain a monster but your follower roster gets jam packed. This prompt comes up for items when your inventory is full, so I don’t know why they couldn’t do the same for followers. It would also be great if you could cancel your actions mid-turn, as many a time when a monster’s entered unchainable status, the last character attacks and kills it before I could unchain it. The judgment battles feel like they’re too random and dependent on grinding up your followers and unchaining higher level ones. The problem with the latter is that triggering the chance to unchain a monster is also dependent on chance, and if you’re unlucky, you could be battling for a while before you manage to trigger an unchaining.

Each character has a Skill Map, which may remind some of the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X or the Crystarium from Final Fantasy XIII. You can customize your characters somewhat by choosing to focus on certain weapons and skills (e.g. physical versus magic), and you get tat boosts while working your way up to those skills and weapon proficiencies. You could eventually accrue enough skill points (SP) to max all the branches, but it takes a lot of leveling to get there, more than most people would have the patience for. Since you can’t reassign points, you do need to put some thought into where you distribute them, though a few points assigned somewhere you later decide was a mistake won’t nerf your character permanently. Each character also has Burst Skills, which become available when a meter fills up as you take damage. Burst Skills vary from strong group attacks to healing your whole party.

All of the dungeons in this game, with one exception, have fixed layouts. There are traps such as lava and poison tiles, as well as warp tiles. There’s also a dungeon with floors wherein water is flooding in and you only have a limited number of steps to find the stairs or use an item to escape before you drown. You can gather materials from gathering points, represented by a blinking red dot on your map and a prompt to examine on the upper right hand corner of the screen. You need specific tools in your inventory to gather at the different kinds of gathering points: pickaxes for mining, saws for timber, and trowels for harvesting. Tools have a chance of breaking after each attempt to gather. You can take those materials to town to craft them into items and equipment, and the equipment you can craft is often more powerful than what you can buy and costs less (as long as you have the required materials, of course). As you craft more items, your proficiency with those items increases, and when it’s high enough you can craft more things. You can fail in your attempt to craft, in which case you lose the materials and the fee you paid. Again, you can use the ability to save anywhere to negate this risk if you’d rather not risk losing the materials.

Battles are your standard turn-based affairs, viewed in first person with your party’s portraits and stats at the bottom and the enemies on top. During battles, you can face up to three groups of enemies, and you toggle between them with the trigger buttons. Some groups have a leader, and when the leader is defeated, the rest of the group is inflicted with a status effect like being bound and thus unable to act, or fear and being less likely to do so.

You can heal HP (but not MP) at either a campfire or healing crystal. With the former, you can trigger campfire chats the first time you encounter a campfire site. You can pick a character to chat with and s/he’ll get SP, but you can only do this once per site, so if you want to see all the scenes, you’ll have to save and reload. You can also save anywhere except on the world map, which makes the long arduous trips into dungeons a bit easier. You also have to manage your inventory as you can only carry fifty items and there is no storage option until chapter 4. Even then, you can’t synthesize items from materials in storage; you have to have them in your inventory, which is cumbersome given the limitation on the number of items you can hold and having to retrieve items from storage if you don’t have enough on hand. Storage is in the same place as where you synthesize items, so it makes less sense to not be able to synthesize from there.

After you complete the game, a bonus dungeon with 101 floors and random layouts becomes available. You could theoretically start over, but given that there’s no New Game Plus, there’s not much point to doing so unless you really want to see the story again. The first three chapters require you to train characters that start at level 1 until they can survive longer treks through the dungeons. As a result, there is a somewhat high barrier of entry for those not as acclimated or inclined towards grinding of that nature. Boss battles can prove to be a wall unless your party is adequately prepared and leveled. Even then, the difficulty presented in this game is manageable while still presenting a good challenge.

Those who can get past that will find a solid dungeon crawler in which you can easily sink in many hours. If fact, that’s why this review took me so long to finish; there’s just a ton of content to go through, and I wanted to be as thorough as possible in covering this game. Over all, I rather enjoyed my time with Unchained Blades, and I’d recommend it for anyone craving some dungeon crawling on their PSP or Vita.

PROS
* Mechanics like the follower system and judgment battles help make the game feel fresh
* Can customize your characters’ skills and stats development to an extent
* More story than what most dungeon crawlers in this vein have
* Soundtrack is aurally pleasing

CONS
* Can be grind heavy, especially in the first three chapters
* Judgment battles too dependent on luck
* Dungeon environments can get repetitive to look at

FINAL SCORE: B-

Disclosure: A review code was provided by XSEED Games. At the time of this review, the reviewer had played 60 hours.

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About Aileen Coe