In another story of a niche publisher taking on a heavy labor of love to localize a hit JRPG to the North American masses, Xseed Games brings us Unchained Blades from FuRyu. A collaborative effort of Japanese game development’s A-list talent, the game's creators include Takashi Hino of Grandia fame, and Toshio Akashi, known for his work on the Lunar series. Even Nobuo Uematsu himself contributed some hot licks for the soundtrack.
All things considered, Unchained Blades is still an assumptive write-off among other by-the-numbers JRPGs destined to be overlooked. But upon further inspection, Unchained Blades breaks most of those expectations and delivers some real hope that the genre has plenty of life left in it.
Unchained Blades emulates the dungeon-crawling experience of Wizardry and Bard’s Tale, a practice that has been beaten to death. And while influences alone may deter you, the game manages to reinvigorate the excitement behind exploring dozens of floors to the dungeons that await you. One such method is "unchanging" enemies in order for them to join your party as followers. Your party contains four masters possessing elemental alignments (be it fire, water, and so-on) alongside their separate abilities. These masters also have four followers, who also possess certain elemental alignments. While only having direct control of masters, you can still bring your party up to 20 members. The element refreshes the mundane trappings of its fellow modern contemporaries by engineering an enlistment sensation similar to Pokémon, but is applied with a much more complex setting for strategy and combat.
The followers are responsible for different actions. They can jump in front of their respective masters and either deflect enemy attacks, or take the damage of an oncoming attack for a master or enhance your attacks and special attacks depending on field placement and element alignment relative to the master they’re following. Unchaining becomes more and more appealing as you scour the floors of the dungeon in hopes of charming more critters over to your make-shift army, but this feature isn’t without its flaws. See, you aren’t always given the ability to unchain them -- you either after have to drain a certain amount of health, which present the circle over them, and allow you to engage them. It doesn’t always happen, and initiating it has definable pattern how to even do it. The Unchain opportunity simply happens by chance, and sometimes you don’t even have to fight; your charisma rank (more on that in a bit) will immediately charm enemies in battle into the unchain phase that allows you to recruit them.
The battle isn’t ground breaking, but effective nonetheless. Turn-based combat has you facing down different groups of enemies, sometimes too numerous to be displayed on one screen, which can succeed to build an enjoyable tension when engaged in combat. You can either attack, perform a special attack (which including the aforementioned “link skill” effect if the right conditions are met with your followers), defend, and use a burst skill, which is available after repeated battles fill its meter. Again, elemental alignments play a role in determining the order of attacks, along with the occasional battle where you’ll face a group with master monsters. Targeting a groups master will cast a variable detriment for the remaining troupe of monsters to ease up the fighting.
Combat doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel of RPG gaming, but it has the perfect balance of depth and accessibility that doesn’t demand intensive study of countless tutorials. On occasion, you’ll have to fight in what’s called a judgment battle, where enlisted party followers battle alone against other monsters through a series quick time inputs to achieve victory. These battles are required to progress through some of the dungeons, and quickly become annoying since you’ll lose if you don’t have strong set of followers (usually dependent through recruiting stronger ones that get stronger through leveling). The battles themselves are simply bland and boring, with nothing more than button inputs.
When masters progress they earn slight enhancements in their attack, defense, and other stats. Masters also earn special points spendable on a special spider graph. The spider graph also allows you to fill spots that unlock additional moves and abilities, along with weapon enhancing traits and follower bonuses if certain conditions are met. Character growth falls along the same lines of combat to where the polish is there to balance appeal and depth, but the focus on followers is where half of the drive is for the physical gameplay -- surprisingly, the other half is the story.
The narrative focuses on the journey to the Goddess of the land, who will grant the wish of any who enter her domain; this acts as the main motivation for all of the characters. The attack that sets in motion Fang’s fall from grace at the hands of a goddess (in which he simply wanted to use her as a GPS for the strongest foe) to Hector, the cowardly golem prince who wishes to be a kid again. You’ll meet several characters who join in on your plight. Each character fits their role in your journey to fit the tone of personal rediscovery and add to the advancement through sharp writing and excellent voice acting. The story has all the trappings of a fantasy anime but it within its refined characterization within the narrative that really shines.
With the landscape of new releases being pretty dry for both the 3DS and the PSP as of late, Unchained Blades does an excellent job of doing more than just filling a void. With gameplay and story that make it shine brighter than its current peers, Unchained Blades is one of the finer examples of modern JRPGs, and is worth your attention beyond the desire of getting some new software for some handheld grinding.
Four out of Five Hadokens