Two years after releasing in Japan, Unchained Blades arrives for North American 3DS owners, six months after the PSP release. The dungeon crawling JRPG follows the Dragon Emperor on a quest to regain the power stripped from him by a goddess. Adhering closely to the standard RPG formula, Unchained Blades is competent, but fails to stand out in any way.
The story begins with Fang, the Dragon Emperor, trying to prove once and for all that he is the most powerful dragon alive. In search of a worthy opponent, he runs afoul of the goddess Clunea, who doesn’t care for Fang’s attitude and strips him of his power to teach him some humility. Now just a human, Fang must complete the Holy Ordeals to get back to Clunea and prove his worth.
Unchained Blades is played from a first-person perspective as you move through dungeons, fighting groups of monsters. Playable characters are called “masters,” and you can have up to four in your party. Each has different motivations, can handle different weapons and possesses different abilities. Each also has a unique skill map, which allows you to chose new attributes or abilities as you level up.
Every master can have up to four followers, helper monsters that will occasionally jump in front of enemy attacks and absorb damage, or join in a sync attack, doing extra damage. Masters and followers are classified as different types, and matching the category of the follower to the master results in more frequent and powerful benefits, adding a nice layer of strategy.
Masters have standard attributes like HP and MP, but each also has a charisma rating, which is very important. Higher charisma ratings make it more likely that a weakened enemy will be “unchained” and added to your party as a follower. Being able to capture enemies and add them to your party is a cool idea, but it’s annoyingly random, as sometimes the option to unchain appears, and other times it doesn’t.
You can gain or lose charisma based on your performance in battle and interactions with followers. A follower will occasionally approach you with a statement or problem, and your response will raise or lower its mood, affecting its performance. The problem is that the statements and responses don’t really match up, and the tone of response required is inconsistent. As an example, I was approached by a follower when we arrived in town, excited that he would have time to play. When I agreed with him, he told me I was childish, and his mood worsened. It seems random whether the follower is looking for a positive or negative response, and it quickly became frustrating.
The majority of the game is standard RPG, selecting an attack or skill for each party member in turn based battles with monsters. Occasionally you will enter into a judgment battle, which is basically a melee between your followers and a group of enemies. These play out like a rhythm minigame; matching the arrow prompts on screen helps to swing the tide of the battle in your favor, and occasionally you can button mash to help a follower win a one-on-one fight.
While the basic game play of Unchained Blades is sound, there are also some cumbersome elements. For example, you can find new items for your masters, but there are character restrictions that aren’t explained. For example, if you find a sword you can’t tell which (if any) of your masters can actually use it. To find out, you need to go to the equipment screen for each and see if it is available. In battle, to speed things up you can have the game automatically fight for you, but it won’t bother to use curative items if your health gets low, and when I tried it all of my characters died.
Visually, the game is dull. Characters and enemies look fine, but every wall in an area looks identical, to the point that the only reliable way to find doors is to watch the map. By nature, RPGs are games of repetition, and the feeling that I was constantly walking down the same hallway made it monotonous quickly. The 3D effect is very minimal, and aside from adding a slight amount of depth, it is unnoticeable. Simply put, it looks exactly like what you would expect a game ported from the PSP to.
The controls keep with that theme, and the game makes no use of the touchpad whatsoever, aside from entering player names. It’s not a deal breaker, but navigating menus would have greatly benefited from the touch support. The voice work is average, with some instances when the emotion in the voice doesn’t match the dialog, and others when it sounds downright bored. It’s nothing offensive, but it also doesn’t add anything positive. The score is a highlight though, including orchestral melodies rock tunes and more, while still managing to fit in nicely.
Unchained Blades is a solid game that is ultimately forgettable. With graphics and game play that take no advantage of the 3DS hardware and a structure that matches so many other titles in the genre, there’s simply nothing here to make it stand out. My feelings weren’t helped by the fact that Fang is a dick, and I had no motivation to help him achieve anything. In the end, the basics are here, but there are more complete packages available in the genre.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.