If you could wish for anything, what would it be? If you're anything like Fang, the immediately off-putting Dragon King protagonist in the opening moments of Unchained Blades, you'd ask for the name of the strongest being alive, start a fight with a goddess and get thrown out of heaven for your insolence. Thankfully, XSEED's latest 3DS eShop effort is much easier to love than Fang. Unchained Blades is an old-school, dungeon crawling RPG that promises over 60 hours of gameplay, with an emphasis on narrative and character development that's uncommon for the genre. The result is a game that's unapologetically hardcore, but offers enough hooks and helpful features to be fun for challenge-seeking newbies lured in by its story and style.
After plummeting back to Earth, Fang loses his dragon form and considerable strength, and sets out on a quest for revenge. The journey that follows is a charming, animé-inspired take on The Wizard of Oz, as the newly bipedal Dragon King and a whole cast of personable characters make their way to the goddess in the hopes of having their wishes granted. The script has a light-hearted tone and never takes itself too seriously, and combined with the peculiar mythology of the game's world — where adolescent humanoids grow into adult animals and monsters — it makes for an enjoyable, engaging adventure.
In terms of style, Unchained Blades reminds us quite a bit of Atlus' Code of Princess. It lacks that game's winking, self-referential humour, but shares a set of similarly over-the-top, under-dressed and ultimately endearing protagonists. Besides the relentlessly rude Dragon King, you'll control a teenage Golem prince on the run from unwanted fiancées, a shy white mage with Medusa's gift for sudden stonemasonry, and a mysterious Reaper who — like some macabre version of Quailman — wears his spine on the outside, along with many other personalities. There's a huge diversity in the characters, with 14 different (and well known) animé artists contributing designs for each of the main characters; thankfully this variety keeps things fresh rather than feeling disjointed.
For all its focus on story and characters, Unchained Blades is still a dungeon crawler at heart. It's a classic formula that fans of the Etrian Odyssey series will know well: first-person exploration of labyrinthine levels, battling groups of identical monsters, and lots of levelling up. But Unchained Blades' personality bleeds through into these aspects as well, helping it stand out from other entries in the genre in its mechanics as well as its presentation.
First off, in a Xenoblade Chronicles-like twist, the "dungeons" are actually "Titans" — enormous beings that resemble colossal, architecturally-derived tortoises, mammoths and more. They're all beautifully depicted in pre-level art, and their elemental themes — fire, water, sand, etc. — carry over into enemy types, traps and puzzles. The Titans fit in well with the game's style, and help lend an immersive atmosphere to the otherwise repetitive corridor crawl.
The battle system is turn-based, with fairly standard conventions — front and back rows, physical and magical attacks — and some welcome surprises that keep it engaging and fun even after hours of grinding. Battles can take place over up to three screens, which lends a grand scale even to early skirmishes as you take on upwards of a dozen enemies at once. Switching between screens with the shoulder buttons means there's some extra strategy involved too, since group attacks can only target one screen's worth of foes. In addition to standard attacks, your characters have access to Burst skills — massive techniques that can be activated after dealing enough blows in battle. Their effects range from simple screen-clearing sweep attacks to healing all party members, or freezing all enemies, and each comes with a vibrant animation.
Perhaps the best addition to battle is the ability to "Unchain" enemies, and have them join your party as Followers, Shin Megami Tensei-style. From time to time, when an enemy's health is below the halfway mark, a ring will appear indicating they can be unchained, by way of a simple timing-based mini-game that's oddly thrilling in the heat of battle. You can assign up to four of these collected monsters to each of your characters, and each individual Follower has its own stats and experience points to level up.
Once attached to a party member, Followers will jump out to take hits, deflect attacks, and augment damage dealt with Sync attacks. You can't control them directly, but they do help quite a bit. They also have elemental attributes called "animas", such as fire, healing or earth, and Followers with certain animas are required for characters to perform powerful Link Skills. Followers also form the basis for Judgement battles, mass melees where your monsters square off against a group of enemy minions as you egg them on with encouraging gems and Quick Timing Events. These are fun, though for rhythmically-inclined players it's maddening that the timing of button presses is out of sync with the soundtrack.
The Unchain system is a great addition to the game, but it's not without its faults. For one, the random nature of when you're able to Unchain makes it hard to strategise around it effectively. Watching hopelessly as a newly unchainable monster falls victim to an already-inputted attack is a common occurrence, while restraining your attacks to allow for potential Unchains leads to drawn out, HP-sapping battles with no guarantees of a catch.
Another issue lies in trying to ensure unchained monsters stay happy. Sometimes a Follower will come to its Master after battle for short conversational exchanges, the results of which will either boost or decrease that character's Charisma rating. Unfortunately, the underlying logic behind the dialogue choices is frustratingly esoteric. To give an example: one Follower asking "Master! Can I have an item too?", if answered with an enthusiastic "Yes!", will reply with "Hmm, but you never gave me any before…" and a corresponding Charisma nosedive. It's tough to tell what response each Follower is looking for, and the system ends up feeling arbitrary as a result. Overall though, Unchaining is a lot of fun, and the fact that each new monster type encountered brings new possibilities for your own party makes catching as many as possible an addictive part of the game.
Levelling up is also more interesting than usual thanks to the fantastic Skill Map system, a customisation tool similar to Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid. Each new level grants a character two Skill Points, which can be used to unlock abilities and stat boosts on a character-specific web of connected circles. More powerful abilities sit in the middle of these circles and can only be accessed by filling out the entire ring of nodes around them. It gives you a fantastic amount of control over your characters' development, letting you build a party with strengths that fit your play style, and it's also incredibly satisfying to fill out.
After a sufficient spell of spelunking around the dungeons, or when things start to get dicey, you'll head back to town to heal up at the Inn, buy and sell weapons, armour and items, and synthesize sundries from gathered materials. You can also take on side quests ("Amass 20 Followers", " Explore 80% of a certain dungeon floor", etc.) for rewards. You can work on several quests at once, and these help to keep things interesting while you're grinding away in the Titans — and they also provide some much needed cash, which is generally in short supply. As with most dungeon crawlers, "town" here is a menu-based affair, but the fantastically quirky shopkeepers lend it a unique feel.
Along with its intriguing story and characters, Unchained Blades brings some friendly features that make it a solid entry point for dungeon-crawling novices. Most notably, you can save absolutely anywhere in the game outside of battle. This makes a huge difference, both in keeping the frustration level as low as possible, and in making Unchained Blades a great fit for portable play. Grinding is a staple of the genre, but it's much more beginner-friendly when you can work in some quick levelling on the bus without having to scramble for a save point when you reach your stop. It also helps mitigate the massive difficulty spikes that occur within the Titans. Make no mistake: this is a very tough game. Your entire party can be wiped out in a few hits when more powerful enemies appear, so it's always a good idea to save before ascending a floor. And with two data slots, it's easy to hold onto a "safe" save in town, just in case you get in over your head in a dungeon.
The game's first several hours also function as an extended tutorial, with characters clearly explaining the complex systems behind the action, walking you through relatively assured victories in several different battle situations. You can view these explanations from the menu at any time — which you'll probably find yourself doing at least once, as there's a lot to take in. Finally, the map on the bottom screen auto-fills as you explore. That means aspiring cartographers will get less of a fix here than in the Etrian Odyssey series, but it definitely makes for a more accessible game.
One aspect of Unchained Blades that's a bit difficult to come to grips with is the control scheme. The usual Nintendo button layout is reversed, with B confirming menu selections and A serving as the back button. It sounds easy enough to get used to, and anyone who's spent time with a DualShock will feel right at home, but it still feels a bit funny on the 3DS, and resulted in this reviewer accidentally buying more than a few pairs of unwanted +2 Cotton Pants early on in the adventure. More troublesome is the absence of any touch control. For a game that's essentially all menus, the stylus seems like a natural fit, and would make moving around the Skill Maps in particular a much smoother process. It's a conspicuous absence, especially as the bottom screen sits completely vacant during battle.
The lack of stylus control is likely a side-effect of the game's simultaneous development on PSP, and that seems to have filtered into the game's visuals as well. The graphics are fine, but they don't feel like a priority — nearly static enemies and monotonous corridors are par for the course in dungeon crawlers, and Unchained Blades doesn't shake things up much. The character portraits are wonderful though, and there's a surprising variety in their poses and expressions that make the talking-heads dialogue scenes more visually interesting than you'd expect. The animé cutscenes look great, though they're entirely in 2D, and the 3D effect is underused in the game as a whole. It mostly serves to put some depth between the HUD and the action, but since all of the non-background assets are two-dimensional, turning the 3D on gives the game a diorama look that doesn't seem to fit.
You won't miss much by leaving the 3D slider down while playing, but to do the same with the volume would be a disservice — the audio side of the package is where Unchained Blades really impresses. The soundtrack, from Xenoblades Chronicles composer Tsutomu Narita and Final Fantasy veteran Nobuo Uematsu, is wonderfully varied, with pulse-pounding, melodic metal in one Titan giving way to soothing underwater pan pipes in the next. The voice acting is very well done, adding a ton of personality to the offbeat characters and smoothing over the occasional mismatch in tone — characters sometimes use incongruously crude and highfalutin language in the same breath — in XSEED's mostly excellent localisation.
Unchained Blades is unabashedly old-school. Its high level of challenge and grind-heavy pacing won't be for everyone, but it has so much style that anyone intrigued by the story or characters — and open to some difficult dungeon crawling — should definitely check it out. The battle system is a blast, monster collecting is addicting, and an excellent tutorial and the ability to save anywhere are welcome additions for beginners. Fans of the genre will love Unchained Blades; for the uninitiated, it's a great introduction that has more than enough charm to keep rookies crawling through Titan after Titan.