In a world different to ours rested an omnipotent goddess named Clunea. Clunea created the world, and has the power to grant any wish from the deepest depths of one’s heart. However, this wish cannot simply be bestowed to just anyone. Before obtaining the right to make a wish, one must first attempt the Holy Ordeals to prove themselves worthy of the Goddess’ power. And thus, the goddess waits in her holy temple, high above the skies, for a suitably capable individual.
Like other first person dungeon crawlers, Unchained Blades is fairly light on story, but it is presented in a short and sweet manner. While the plot is simplistic, it managed to keep me entertained over the course of the game thanks to the excellent writing. Similar praise can be given to the writing of the characters, which makes interactions between them interesting, especially when the game relies heavily on the usual anime character trope which usually does not end well for the characters.
The main character of Unchained Blades is Fang, who was a Dragon Emperor until Clunea stripped him from his powers. Arrogant, boastful and pompous, he vowed revenge against Clunea and took the Holy Ordeals in order to face the goddess one more time and prove his superiority. Aside from the Dragon Emperor, other supporting characters include a cowardly Golem prince, an emotionless Mandrake and a tsundere Phoenix princess. The world Clunea created certainly was multiracial and as per most tales, they were bound by the threads of fate to undergo the Holy Ordeals together.
In terms of character leveling, Furyu embraced the concept of Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid with a slight twist. Characters gain 2 SP for every level they gain and can allocate them freely in the skill map. This gives you the freedom to shape your characters and although there is no right or wrong way to build characters, it is better to plan first before allocating SP since the game can pretty brutal without the correct skills at your party’s disposal.
Unchained Blades introduces several features to complement the usual dungeon crawler fare, but the most significant feature is the “Follower”. A Follower, like its name suggest are monsters that you have captured (or Unchained, in the game’s terms) and fights alongside you. In battle, your Follower can either follow up your attacks with their own or use its body to shield you from attacks depending on their mood. In practice though, you’re more likely to depend on the latter ability since the damage output from their follow up attacks do weak damage. Followers are also important due to the “Anima” they can provide their masters with. Anima are used to enable “Link Skills”, so it is absolutely essential to Unchain different kinds of monsters to be able to use the more powerful skills in battle in order to stand a chance against stronger monsters in the later parts of the game.
Of course, before you can even utilise your monster’s services, you need to Unchain them first. Before the monster is susceptible for Unchaining, you have to wear them down to less than 50% health and the system will take care of the rest. The process of Unchaining involves a precision timing minigame which has 2 steps. The first step is just to ensure that the moving ring is inside the sigil before pressing a button.
The second step is a bit tricky though, depending on the strength of the monsters that you are about to Unchain. Usually only 1 ring needs to be stopped inside the sigil, but stronger monsters require 2 or maybe 3 rings to be stopped in a row and these needs to be on the inside of the circle you stopped before. This may sound a bit overwhelming especially in the beginning, but the ring’s rate of movement is directly affected by your character’s Charisma. Thus, a character with high Charisma will have an easier time Unchaining stronger monsters as the rings will move more slowly. The Unchaining process can be quite exciting, especially in a life or death battle and suddenly the Unchain ring appears. On the other hand, Unchaining comes with its own share of problems as well.
One of the major issues with the Unchain mechanic is how easy it is to accidentally kill the monster that can be Unchained. This is due to the probability of a monster susceptible to Unchain is very random and most of the time the enemy is only susceptible to Unchain before the finishing blow. This situation can be very frustrating, especially when a strong monster dies just before Unchaining and the party is too exhausted to attempt another battle with similar monster. Expect to return to town a lot to restock and rest, as MP recovery items are scarce.
Another point regarding the Unchain mechanic is over how random it is. The rate of Unchaining supposedly rises with increase in Charisma, but I found it still difficult to Unchain monsters in the previous dungeon I’d been to and I wore them down only using mages in order to not accidentally kill them. In its current state, Unchaining monsters is tedious and require a lot of patience and luck. There are several unlockable passive skills in the skill map which will make specific monster races easier to unlock, but it will require some leveling as they are pretty far up the skill map.
Meanwhile, Judgment Battle is where you utilise all of your Followers in a battle for supremacy to prove you’re worthy of Goddess Clunea’s blessings. Judgment Battle plays like a rhythm game of some sort, where there are arrows which correspond to the direction of the d-pad which moves on screen and have to be pressed in a timely manner. The better you correspond to the commands on screen, the better your Followers will do in battle. Sometimes the screen will shift and show a button prompt for a leader to activate his or her skill. This can be a lifesaver as it does a considerable amount of damage to the opposing party. Your monsters can also be suddenly locked in a 1 on 1 battle with the enemy and some button mashing is required to win this part. Judgment Battle is one of the entertaining features introduced, but is severely underutilized. There were only 2 or 3 Judgment Battles per dungeon and usually only 1 Judgment Battle is mandatory to proceed further into the heart of the dungeon.
You might have noticed that I have been using the terms “anima”, “Charisma”, “link skills”, and “mood”, but in what way does it affect the game? Well, the inclusion of these elements and several others unmentioned made the game feel unnecessarily complex. In order to use powerful link skills, anima is needed. To gain anima more monsters needs to be Unchained, and to Unchain stronger monsters a high Charisma is required, which means doing well in battles and not running away from them (running away reduces your Charisma).
The only answer to this is to grind, and you’ll be doing a lot of grinding to get your Charisma high enough in order to do the steps above, especially in order to be able to use that seemingly powerful link skill that requires multiple rare anima. Similarly, your monster’s mood will depend greatly on how you do in battle and their actions depend on their mood. The answer is yet again to grind in order to improve your monster’s mood. After all, a happy monster will die for you, whereas an angry monster will just watch you die.
As a first person dungeon crawler, it is understandable that grinding is required to progress in the game and when done right, it can potentially be enjoyable. This is not the case with Unchained Blades, however, due to several baffling design decisions.
First is the incoherent pacing of the game. Instead of letting players familiarise themselves with the game’s mechanics and exploration before tackling a dungeon, the game throws a 10 hour long dungeon immediately after the tutorial with scarce resources at the party’s disposal. On the other hand, the second chapter of the game introduces a shorter dungeon compared to the first one and the third dungeon is even shorter. Under normal circumstances, the player will be expected to experience a short dungeon first to build confidence and a sense of achievement to make them brave enough to attempt the harder ones. Starting off with a long dungeon with no prior experience just induces fatigue, especially to those attempting to get into this genre for the first time.
Another questionable design decision can be attributed to the inventory limit. There is a limit of 50 unique items in the inventory and storage services aren’t available at least halfway into the game and a specific quest has to be done in order to unlock it. This means a lot of backtracking to town to unload unwanted items at the local sundry shop. Inventory limit wouldn’t be such a problem if not for quests and syntheses requires excavating some of the rarer items found in dungeons, which will quickly fill your inventory with clutter. If you’re into dungeon crawlers and can look past these issues, you’ll enjoy Unchained Blades.
Food for thought:
1. Unchained Blades has a pretty good voice cast backing it up which makes character interactions much more enjoyable.
2. The music is exceptionally well done. The game promotes the sound being done by Nobuo Uematsu, but majority of the tracks in the game were done by Tsutomo Narita, his apprentice. If I didn’t look up for some information on the internet, I would have believed that Uematsu did the whole soundtrack. It is deceivingly good.
3. The monster encyclopedia is there to show you pretty pictures. That’s pretty much the only thing it does. Hopefully Unchained Blades Exxiv will actually make the encyclopedia useful by adding Anima information and perhaps some stats.
4. Characters start at level 1 the first time you get to use them, so get grinding!