There is a point, a few hours into Unchained Blades, when you realize what a frustratingly baffling game it really is. It’s a 3D first person dungeon crawler, but movement is restricted to a grid (and dizzyingly controlled by the analog slider). It’s a game telling an epic story of a fallen, arrogant king trying to reclaim his glory, but the dialog wouldn’t be out of place in your average middle school or high school classroom drama. It’s on the 3DS, but the developers, in their infinite wisdom, decided to retain the Playstation control scheme for the title, meaning the main action button is B, and not A. Having had this revelation, and realizing what an infuriating game Unchained Blades really is, you promptly go back to playing it.
It’s one of those rare games where even when everything about it should work against it, and repel you, you continue to play, because it’s engaging enough for you to want to play. It’s not as if you’re playing it for the story: while the general idea of having your JRPG hero not be the typical do goody type (or worse, the brooding, angsty teenager) is great, and the game carries it off well, the story itself isn’t anything to write home about. The quality of the dialog, along with the voice work, is brilliant, but again, the actual writing is jarring, because it’s just so modern teenager in a medieval fantasy game.
So no, you don’t play Unchained Blades for its story. You don’t play it for the graphics, which are average at best (this was a PSP game, and it shows, it really does) either. And don’t even get me started on the controls which are broken (like I said, the B button is the main action button, and using the analog stick to traverse a 2D grid is annoying).
Why do you continue playing it then? Because Unchained Blades is one of the most uncompromising and hardcore RPGs in recent years. The game makes no concessions whatsoever, and oftentimes, a simple random encounter could take your entire party down. Boss battles can be unbelievably intense, and throwing a wrench in all your plans is just how many things there are to keep track of. Mechanically speaking, Unchained Blades is an intricate, deep game, and you need to have a handle on all of the said mechanics if you want to survive. The game gets brutal sometimes, and it won’t wait for you, no matter what.
So that all sounds good, but there will probably be many, who, when they go to the eShop, will gawk at the price. At a hefty $30, Unchained Blades is the single most expensive eShop exclusive game on the 3DS right now. Given that the eShop has no dearth of quality content- and certainly no shortage of great RPGs- the question of whether Unchained Blades is worth it is bound to come up. And it is, this isn’t a made for digital only release like other eShop games. While digital games have been coming into their own lately, they are almost always constrained by differing budgets and development sensibilities than retail games. No, Unchained Blades was developed as a full priced retail release in Japan, and only in the west was it made exclusively digital, in order to minimize localization risks. But as a full priced, full length RPG, Unchained Blades currently doesn’t have much competition on the eShop. Don’t let the price scare you.
It’ll start slow, of course. The game does try and make an effort to initiate you, to try and show you how everything works, but once it does that, you’re on your own. Traveling through labyrinth dungeons, battling your way through hordes of enemies, and finding your sense of adequacy constantly challenged as Unchained Blades humiliates you repeatedly, you find yourself playing it, because god damn it, you won’t let a handheld digital only game put you down that way.
But you will. Again and again. And you’ll like it, and you’ll go back to it. That’s Unchained Blades’ biggest accomplishment.
This game was reviewed on the Nintendo 3DS.