So you know how it goes: you’re playing a tabletop RPG with your friends. They poke fun at you because you, the Modern Gamer, want to try something that tends to work on a screen but doesn’t jive with the “realism” of high fantasy. Whatever. You excuse yourself to 'observe nature', but the lights go out and suddenly you’re not at your friend’s house any more…
That’s the premise of Unepic, a, sprawling, indie-designed platformer-RPG with a cheesy, tongue-in-cheek approach to games and pop culture. Think of a combination of “Metroidvania” and Diablo styles, with a few dashes of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure for flavour. Whether all its influences are to a player’s taste may depend, but it’s hard to deny that there’s a very solid game here.
The malevolently medieval castle that serves as Unepic’s main setting should feel familiar in structure to anyone who has played a title like Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow. One is free to wander and discover the rooms that are currently open, but bosses must be vanquished and keys found to open up new areas with new objectives and sidequests.
The castle, from a level design perspective, is very well thought out. There are plenty of nooks and crannies for secrets, traps spring up now and then but aren’t constant enough to be a nuisance, and a convenient network of gates and teleportation spells make travel easy. Each room also contains a number of torches and lamps that can be lit by main character Dan’s always-available lighter. This not only makes it easier to see, but can also mark out what parts of a room have been reached and what still may need to be accessed. It is a clever and seamlessly integrated system that makes exploring feel more exciting and less like an unnavigable chore.
Unepic’s selections of weapons, magic, and equipment also open much up to the player — seven different classes of weapons can be found, with multiple types in each. Every weapon type has certain natural advantages and disadvantages: maces are more effective against armoured foes, for example, while daggers cause more damage if you sneak-stab the enemy from behind. Magic and equipment have similar give-and-take features, from spells and potions to armour and robes.
With all this variety, however, come choices. When levelling up, a limited number of points are granted for categories representing each of the weapon, magic, and equipment types. Points raise proficiency in each category and allow access to higher-level equipment. So is it better to be a jack-of-all-trades at the cost of not getting the bigger guns, or to master a few things and have to push through when something nasty shows up that isn’t weak to them?
The respect Unepic gives players in making and living with their decisions could be seen as a boon or a curse, depending on your own perspective. There is almost no hand-holding here, and while things start off simply enough, the challenge slides up at a steady pace even among the lower of the four difficulty settings. Even so, while a new section may seem outright punishing at first, a bit of time to re-equip or plan a new strategy can make a world of difference.
Luckily, Unepic is set up on the Wii U to make switching between items as easy as drinking a Potion of Item-Switching. When playing on the TV, the GamePad serves as an easy go-to board for accessing whatever you need; and when in off-TV play, up to 12 items can still be assigned for instant access through button combinations. In fact, off-TV may be the preferred method for some to play, as it allows zooming in on the character instead of a constant full view of the room.
Unepic’s graphics are on the simple side, but that melds well for the more “old-school” theme and presentation; the music is similarly low-key but atmospheric. That leaves the potentially divisive writing and dialogue. The jokes can be very hit-or-miss, with a heavy leaning on nerdy culture and references for the sake of references. Some may love it; some may despise it. Still, there are better, more original segments featuring Dan and a companion who does not always have his best interests in mind. Everything is voiced, most of it not too terribly, and most of this stuff can be easily skipped if desired, anyway.
With much to explore and so many ways of storming the castle’s inhabitants, Unepic is a fun and well-designed challenge for those who enjoy platformers and yon hefty olde RPG feel. Its tight and rewarding core makes it a quest that can be enjoyed along with, or even in spite of, its cheekier sense of humour.