If Dark Souls was a two dimensional, action-RPG platformer then, Unepic would certainly be it.
Recently re-released for current-gen consoles, Unepic harks back to the old days of classic 2D platforming to provide you with a nostalgia infused, witty adventure in a clichéd fantasy setting – a dark and mysterious castle. It arguably shares a lot of similarities with Dark Souls which include; a steep learning curve, hard difficulty level and story arc, a decent amount of customisation and even the overall setting. Of course there are also glaringly obvious differences, i.e. the entire look of the game, but whether the developers at EnjoyUp took lessons from the Souls franchise or not, I couldn’t help but feel that I was playing that kind of game. That is certainly a good thing.
Sadly, there are a fair few shortcomings that appear to have not been addressed since the game’s original release in 2011. The most serious issue is that gameplay is unbalanced and at times simply not enjoyable, verging on the edge of unplayable.
Considering the fact that Unepic doesn’t take itself too seriously, I was surprised to find that the story was actually very interesting and full of comedy. You step into the shoes of Daniel, a typically normal guy who loves video games, sci-fi, fantasy and role-playing games. On a seemingly normal night in, playing Dungeons and Dragons with the lads, Daniel suddenly finds himself transported to another realm. He is quickly confronted by an evil dark spirit who attempts to possess his body, but instead becomes trapped inside with only the ability to speak. The spirit thus becomes Daniel’s reluctant ‘companion’ throughout the coming adventure. It is great to see how the relationship between these two characters develops and how Daniel’s sarcastic and jovial nature clashes with the harsh, insulting words of Zera, the spirit.
Daniel’s main objective is to progress through each area of the castle, fighting through mobs to get to the seven main bosses of the game. These bosses must be defeated to get the key they are guarding and eventually the final area will be accessible where you’ll confront Harnakon, the ruler of the castle. Along the way you will encounter a variety of quests to complete for magical rewards, loot or coins and although many of them do revolve around the ‘go here, collect that’ route, there are a few that are absolutely hilarious and awesome. One that stands out is Bureaucracy, which was so bloody frustrating it became funny (I won’t ruin the reason why though). The game follows an extremely clichéd pattern and takes great joy in making fun of itself.
The script is well written and the voice actors do a good job at delivering the witty and humorous lines that are packed full of references to stereotypically geeky films and TV shows. Expect to find mentions of Star Wars, The Matrix, Futurama, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Trek and more. These allusions don’t feel like they were haphazardly thrown in as fan service to the people playing, but actually form a hilarious and integral part of the script.
According to the developers, Unepic was intentionally created in the 80’s style that we find, so you would expect it to look very dated by today’s standard. It does however do a good job of placing you in the desired fantasy setting and whilst the visuals are nothing to get excited about, they serve their purpose. That being said the lighting mechanics are very dynamic and the contrast between light and dark is immediately apparent. As you go around lighting candles, torches and sconces you will be able to see each area much more clearly and will have the drop on the enemies that lie in wait. It also became quite addictive as lighting every area in the castle nets you a large number of achievements, so I found myself always saying ‘just one more room’.
By far the best part about Unepic’s creative design is the excellent soundtrack. The game features a wide variety of songs, each perfectly fitting its designated area and hitting you with all the right nostalgic vibes. The medieval fantasy music took me back to the good old days of playing Runescape with my friends and I found myself humming or whistling along pretty much the entire time!
When it comes to the gameplay, do you remember what I said about Unepic being a 2D Dark Souls? Well it really is. It is a tough and merciless game, with a surprisingly high learning curve that requires you to think for yourself rather than get spoon-fed every little detail. You are going to die a lot, even on the lower difficulties and each death will force you to adapt to the situation so that you can tackle it differently the next time around. Similarly, the game doesn’t tell you where you need to go and you must search each area to find out how to progress, but it does this without ever feeling overly frustrating, with characters you meet along the way offering plenty of helpful advice. The game rewards those who take the time to light each room and explore the hidden corners of the castle and observant players will notice out of place walls that can be hit to reveal a hidden chest or rare item.
As you would expect from an RPG there is a good amount of customisation, with 100 different weapons and 70 spells to collect. Various armour sets and mage robes are also in place to purchase. You can find rings to boost your skills and use scrolls, potions and magic to buff Daniel, healing him, making him faster, stronger or even invisible. Taking advantage of these mechanics is crucial in the later game when enemies become substantially stronger and deadlier. The degree of customisation means the game has a tonne of replay value and once I finished my melee/bow playthrough I instantly started again as a magic user.
Combat is fun but extremely basic. Whether you’re playing melee, ranged or magic, every fight involves you standing on the spot pressing X until the things in front of you are dead – or you run away to heal. I know it’s just a 2d, NES style game, so the controls don’t have to be complicated, however I would have at least liked to see other actions such as blocking and rolling.
Gameplay is very unbalanced and is the most frustrating problem with the game. If you’re like me and you enjoy playing melee characters in action RPG’s, you’re going to have a really rough time in Unepic as this combat method is completely underpowered compared to magic and ranged fighting. Many times entire groups of enemies converged on my character and would easily decimate me unless I ran away. With added effects like burning or poison stacking up, you can get quickly overwhelmed and die before being able to heal. Sometimes this became so infuriating that the game was no longer enjoyable to play. That being said, it was fun learning to outplay the unbalanced AI which was hugely necessary in the hardest areas and on the higher difficulties. This balancing problem is accentuated when you get to the main boss fights of the game. The last boss for example, is literally impossible to complete with melee attacks because by trying to reach the boss you will fall into a pit of death. I was fortunate because I had invested a lot of skill points into bows so my ranged attacks were highly effective but if I hadn’t done that then I would have had to respec my entire character. Magic really does make most of the boss fights completely trivial, but overall they are well varied and require you to quickly think on your feet before you get decimated by powerful attacks.
I was also disappointed that Unepic’s Xbox One launch did not support co-op play as it did on the PC for the original game. Considering that it’s been four years since this game originally released, it would have been nice to see the developers add this feature so players could try to complete the hardest challenges together.
When all is said and done however, Unepic really is a fun and addictive game that will give you great joy, whilst in true Dark Souls fashion, will also make you tear your hair out in frustration. The story and dialogue is both witty and comical, packed full of pop culture references and I particularly enjoyed Daniel’s sarcasm and quick witted quips.
The graphic design of the game and the excellent soundtrack set the fantasy scene well and the lighting contrasts add to the nostalgic feel as you go around illuminating the map. Although the gameplay is basic, the customisation possibilities give the game plenty of replay value and the unguided navigation forces you to be extra vigilant as you explore each area, rewarding you for doing so. What prevents this game from being truly excellent is the gameplay and AI imbalance, sometimes forcing you to completely change your melee character to magic or ranged, rather than having multiple ways to beat the bosses with each combat method.
Finally, whilst I’m sure there is probably a valid reason for its omission, the lack of co-op multiplayer for the re-release seems quite lazy in my opinion. They’ve had four years to add it after all. Overall though, Unepic is an extremely entertaining action-adventure game with plenty of customisation and a great story, complimented by a fittingly nostalgic, fantasy soundtrack.
If you’re looking for a bit of a challenge and a thoroughly enjoyable action platformer, for a very reasonable price of £7.99 ($9.99), then look no further than Unepic – aka Dark Souls 2D.