Once relegated to the dustiest of basements and the back corners of hobby stores worldwide, Dungeons & Dragons has been enjoying something of a resurgence lately; even the cool kids want to join in on some sword swinging and spell slinging. Whether we've all just become more imaginative, or simply want to escape the swirling darkness that is the year 2018, it's clear that RPGs are still in vogue. So, naturally, we have a Switch title eager to turn the whole thing on its head, and play with the core mechanics in a distinctly silly style.
Previously available on Wii U, Unepic is ready to roll the dice all over again, taking its fantasy Metroidvania stylings to the Switch eShop. We rather enjoyed this challenging adventure last time around, but how does it fare as a portable, single-screen experience?
It's a game of two halves really, where a surprisingly hardcore RPG fights for priority over a lighthearted plot, iffy voice-acting and corny jokes. Playing as Daniel, a geeky stoner who thinks the entire adventure is just some kind of hallucination after one too many beers on game night, you're thrust into the dark depths of a labyrinthine castle, complete with devious traps, hordes of enemies and plenty of hidden secrets to discover. While the actual movement and combat mechanics are quite basic, there's a real depth to the numbers behind every attack you make, every bit of damage you take and every weapon you use. Unepic perhaps considers itself to be an old-school experience, but it's closer to a dungeon-crawler than a platformer, despite the 2D perspective.
You'll explore the winding pathways of the castle in large sections that are laid out across a handy map for keeping progress. There's no clear objective at first, our dopey hero is hardly taking this seriously after all, but along the way you'll find certain sections are locked off, handily guiding you towards where you should be headed first. This sense of exploration is a huge part of the game, driven by the darkness which shrouds each new room in mystery. Some areas are practically pitch black, so Daniel's trusty lighter becomes a vital resource for igniting lanterns and torches along the way, providing a comforting glow as well as a breadcrumb-trail of where you've been. It's a really clever mechanic we didn't expect, and really helps nail that sense of uncertainty as you poke your way around each dark corner.
It's certainly slow and steady going at first, but once you get to grips with the game's wealth of tutorials, you discover Unpeic can be one harsh dungeonmaster. There are a variety of difficulty settings available, with the lower end helping you with regenerating health and more forgiving enemies, while the higher peaks require manual saving, make monsters more aggressive and reward you with extra skill points upon levelling up. These skill points can be invested into your skill with the game's arsenal of weapons, ranging from spears and axes, to longbows and magic staffs. Attacking is extremely straightforward, but again it's your stats which affect the speed and power and the mix of weapon types and specialities, as well as crafting material and armour sets, which makes for a capable loot system overall.
With all of this gear to organise and stats to keep in mind, the menu system is thankfully very simple, and there are options to create hotkey combos for easy access to your favourite items. This is of course particularly useful given that the game doesn't actually pause when going through any of the menus, so you won't have time to think things over in the middle of a heated battle. For this release, the interface has also been slightly revamped in order to better suit the portable nature of Switch, with variations on how you'd like all this information to be displayed. Your basic view is a zoomed-out perspective on the entire area, with a detailed HUD around the borders of the screen, but there's also the option to toggle a suitably-named 'handheld mode', which removes this HUD in favour of giving a closer view on your character. The only real downside to this is that you'll need to memorise all of your hotkey shortcuts to different items, as they won't be displayed on-screen.
That being said, zooming in on the visuals does bring some of their shortcomings into sharper focus. The design of the game is decidedly basic, both graphically and musically, with some simple background tunes to set the mood and clunky animations pretty much across the board. It doesn't detract from the experience too much, but it certainly doesn't add to it either. The castle is well-designed in terms of trap placement and enemy variety, but after you have a few areas under your belt a little extra visual flair would have helped keep things fresh. As it stands, backtracking, grinding and searching for your next destination can get monotonous, even with a mix of side-quests along the way.
While on the subject of presentation, Unepic bombards you with reference after reference, joke after joke, and while comedy is of course subjective, we find this to be incredibly grating. Daniel is a dorky, unlikable protagonist who makes crude marks towards female characters, cracks wise about how great he is and generally parrots nearly every fantasy and gaming trope under the sun. Early in the story he is possessed by a vengeful spirit he names Zera, who is desperately trying to get Daniel killed so that he can be free again. Whether it was intentional or not, it can't be a good thing when we were rooting for the evil spirit's cause, not our plucky 'hero'. Both the voice acting and the dialogue itself is extremely hit or miss, and while it's all skippable, the flippant tone seems a little at odds with how seriously the game's system actually takes itself. It's a silly parody of hardcore, stats-based adventure games, while still being a hardcore, stats-based adventure game.
Whether you get a kick out of the referential humour, or simply tune it out, there are some fun little quirks to the experience that help Unepic stand out at the very least. Fireball attacks will leave Daniel ablaze, leeches must be physically removed from your inventory, and there's a lack of true hand-holding that harkens back to the obtuse RPGs of yesteryear. This, much like the game's script, can go one way or another depending on your preference. The repetitious exploration, sprawling map and lack of direction can absolutely frustrate at times. There's a network of shortcuts to unlock of course, but nothing really interesting to do on the way back and forth between areas. Combat lacks both the nuance of modern titles and the satisfying punchiness of something like Symphony Of The Night, so the game's lengthy campaign is marred by stale patches of wandering around aimlessly.
If you threw a party and invited all of the adventure/roleplaying games along, Unepic would be the one in the center of the room blurting out jokes, laughing too loudly and making sarcastic comments about all of the other guests. Take the time to look past that however and you might learn a little more about what's beneath the surface; a fairly rewarding RPG system and more than a few clever ideas that make for an enjoyable, old-school adventure title that just tries a little too hard. If you don't mind some divisive humour and some repetitious exploration, then having this sprawling adventure on a portable actually helps alleviate some of its limitations. Just try not to keep it away from an open bar.