Review: Unchained Blades

XSEED is famous for localizing quirky Japanese niche titles that you wouldn’t always assume you’d see Stateside, and quite often the gambles they take pay off exponentially. While the PSP may be entering its final hours as a viable portable system, that isn’t keeping developers from releasing brand new options for gamers to dig into. Unchained Blades is a cut-and-paste dungeon crawler with anime aesthetics that attempts to draw in players with its gorgeous artwork and promise of beautiful women and brash heroes, but in the end it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Hampering its release even further, it’s meant to be followed later this year by a release on the 3DS. Is the PSP iteration worth trying, though?

After going toe to toe with a powerful goddess, brash young protagonist Fang finds himself without his powerful dragon clan powers or any hope to regain them – except trudging through the many dungeons the goddess Clunea has erected for those who wish to meet with her in the hopes one wish will be granted. Of course, since Fang’s had his powers taken away, his only wish is for revenge. With a ragtag band of heroes, each with their own wish, Fang sets out to take revenge on the goddess, learning valuable lessons along the way about teamwork and what-have-you. It’s pretty standard fare, but unfortunately one of the first pitfalls Unchained Blades runs into. The plot certainly isn’t worthy enough to make you keep going – and in the cluttered dungeon crawler, you need an anchor that makes you return over and over again.

Unchained Blades is best described as a first-person dungeon crawler that has much in common with early iterations of the Shin Megami Tensei series. Throughout each area you fight with four party members in turn-based battles, recruiting monster fighters along the way. Each party member can “unchain” up to four additional monsters in the party (kind of like advanced Pok√©mon), which makes battles a bit of a complicated affair – or so you’d assume. In reality, you only have any real control over the main party members – your recruited monsters will only make brief cameo appearances on the battlefield. And that’s if you’ve managed to raise their loyalty stats to an acceptable range. In this, the ability to gain monsters for use in battle seems a little pointless when you take a step back and analyze exactly how it must be done, which conditions must be met (a high charisma score, for one), and what the monsters are actually capable of – virtually nothing unless you count their leaping into battle to absorb damage or other, random group assaults.

Leveling up and navigating each dungeon is a much easier affair, and even pleasurable at times. It’s satisfying to complete specific areas of dungeons and earn SP points – using them, you can customize your characters and party to your own specifications. Spending SP points is addictive and is a great way to keep you motivated, especially when the monster-collecting/raising portion of the game begins to wear a bit then.

Unchained Blades isn’t horrible, per se, but it’s just one of those titles you look at, with pity in your eyes, and think how much better it could have been. Unfortunately, the game ultimately ends up a repetitive mishmash of everything you’ve seen before in the JRPG genre: recycled characters, hackneyed dungeon setups, and a cheesy plot that doesn’t always entirely make sense. Of course, the art and musical score couldn’t be better – the juxtaposition between both of these elements is disappointing, as there were plenty of fantastic talents pulled to create this particular game (Nobuo Uematsu contributing the main theme) – it’s sad to see that such talented creators and voice actors were all but wasted on what is arguably a $20 budget title. If you absolutely have to choose one game to keep in your PSP until the end of the handheld’s lifecycle, go ahead and just make it a Shin Megami Tensei game, as you’ll end up feeling a lot more satisfied.

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