August 5, 2012
The story revolves around an alternate world inhabited by an omnipotent goddess known as Clunea, who has the ability to grant the wish of anyone who undertakes a "holy ordeal" to prove themselves worthy of her power. The main character Fang, a renowned and extremely arrogant Dragon Emperor, angers Clunea and is stripped of his powers. Furious, he vows revenge and takes on the holy ordeals for a rematch. Aside from Fang, you have a group of interesting but predictable supporting characters such as a tsundere Phoenix clan princess, a shy Medusa clan girl and a big but cowardly Golem clan prince, just to name a few.
While the plot is generally simplistic and most of the twists can be seen a mile away, it does do a respectable job of keeping the player engaged, as opposed to a typical dungeon RPG which only features a bare-bones story at the most. What makes the story work is how it slowly fleshes out each of the character's personalities and breaks them away from their generic cliches. The only disappointment is that because the game focuses so much on the characters the world itself isn't touched upon much at all. For a game that features multiple clans from all different walks of life it doesn't give any sense of how they operate, outside of them all working together towards a single goal. Developer FuRyu does develop the world and the clans to some degree, but it feels half-hearted and immediately focuses back to the characters.
Much like the story, the gameplay is a mixed bag depending on your experience with the genre. As standard for the series you have the typical first-person turn based battle system, but it does include a few key differentiators. Similar to Atlus' Shin Megami Tensei franchise, Unchained Blades allows you to recruit monsters to fight alongside your party by "unchaining" them. You can have up to four attached to a character at any given time, which can deal supporting damage or take the brunt of an enemy's attack. The fault with this system is that getting the enemies to that unchained status feels exceptionally random as it only occurs when the enemy has a fraction of life left, but the range varies widely between each enemy.
Your character's charisma can improve the chances of this occurring, but this is met with another game mechanic in the form of questions your followers ask you after battle and when entering towns. Some questions are easy to answer, but the majority of the others have backward logic and don't match up with what the player would expect.
While initially this may sound mildly annoying, it comes to a head when the game forces un-skippable group battles in your path to bar your progress. Bringing together rhythm game mechanics and button presses, it requires your gathered followers to fight against the enemy's group of followers. And unless you power-level your lower-level followers, you'll generally lose and have to retry by leaving and re-entering the dungeon (unless you load a previous save). You can get around this by unchaining higher-level monsters, but actually getting them unchained isn't easy. Thankfully the requirements are much less stringent after the first few instances, but that initial experience doesn't put forth the best impression for the player, which is unfortunate because the rhythm mechanics are quite engaging.
One of the best aspects of Unchained Blades, though, is its stat upgrade system. Unlike most dungeon RPGs which utilize pre-determined stat increases, Unchained Blades features a system similar to Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid where each playable character can develop according to the whims of the player. For example Fang can choose between mastering different classes of weapons, each with their own innate abilities and uses. None of the spaces are required, so you can easily set the difficulty on the fly as you prefer. It's easily one of the game's most welcome mechanics.
Dungeon RPGs generally aren't the flashiest in their presentation, but Unchained Blades manages to impress. Each main character was designed by a famous manga/anime artist in Japan, for example Fang being designed by Shining Force EXA's Pako. Normally one would imagine all these characters clashing with one another stylistically, but put together they all feel similar but still individually unique.
The music is headed up by the famous Nobou Uematsu who composed the opening theme with the rest of the tracks being composed by Tsutomo Narita. The boss battle track at the end of each holy ordeal is easily being one of the standout tracks. In all honesty, if you didn't know of Narita's involvement in the majority of the tracks you could easily think Uematsu composed the entire soundtrack.
And for those worrying about XSEED's English dub, which caused many to worry initially when the game was announced, there is no need to worry. There were a few characters which initially felt exceptionally out of place, but later in the game the plot provides an acceptable explanation for this which remedies the "issue".
Unchained Blades set out with the goal of mixing together the best aspects of dungeon and Japanese RPGs, and for the most part it succeeded. It won't set the genre on fire, but it does kickstart the process of advancing it. Dungeon RPG fans will likely eat this up without question, but those who don't have experience with the genre but are well-versed in Japanese RPGs should find something to enjoy here - as long as you take into consideration its lows and highs.