For better or worse, the remaster/re-release trend doesn’t appear to be dying anytime soon. We have now seen titles both mammoth (Uncharted, Gears of War) and minuscule (A Boy and His Blob) receive ports onto new platforms. And while it’s true that some developers are just doing it for the simple cash grab, that doesn’t change the fact that these new releases are allowing a new segment of gamers experience titles they may not have gotten the chance to do have previously. Such is the case with me and Unepic, which hits the Xbox One several years after releasing on the Nintendo Wii U and PC.
Written, designed and programmed by Francisco Téllez de Meneses, Unepic is a strange tale of why fantasy adventures are perhaps best left on the tabletop. We first meet our protagonist Daniel while he is in the middle of a D&D campaign with three of his friends. After finishing up the current scenario, Daniel goes to use the bathroom, but while in there, the lights mysteriously go out. At first, he assumes his friends are just playing a prank on him, but after feeling around for the light switch and being unable to find it, he soon realizes something strange has happened.
After lighting the Zippo he has on him, Daniel discovers he is in a dark castle hallway. Thinking he is hallucinating all of this, he begins to look for a way out. Trouble finds him immediately, though, as the ancient spirit Zerathul attempts to take possession of him. Unfortunately for the disembodied spirit, not only can he not take possession of his human subject, but he is also now stuck in his body. With nothing else to do, the two begin to explore the castle, with Daniel wanting to return home and Zera hoping for his death so he can escape.
Going off that broad overview alone, the story crafted by Meneses is nothing to write home about. It’s your classic “Stranger in a Strange Land” scenario. What helps make it memorable, though, is the fact that it is surprisingly humorous. Meneses fills the story up with as many references to popular science fiction and fantasy he can think of, which could have been poorly done in lesser hands. Instead of just being randomly thrown out there, the references actually make sense in regards to the people and places Daniel encounters. The antagonistic relationship between Zera and Daniel is also handled excellently. Both are not exactly pleasant people to be around, so there acidic personalities play off each other well.
While the storyline of Unepic is easily described, the gameplay is a little more complicated. The best way to describe it would be as a combination of Metroidvania-style platforming and RPG level customization. Since the castle he has found himself in is quite massive, Daniel has to travel through hundreds of rooms in order to find a way back to his friend’s house. So you can look forward to climbing thousands of ladders and opening hundreds of doors as you meticulously make your way through the building. And what would a castle be without thousands of monsters wandering the halls? You’ll do battle with creatures of all sorts and sizes. Whether it’s a tiny worm or a towering fire-breathing dragon, there are plenty of things out there that want you just as dead as Zera does.
If this was just a straight platformer, the title would just be another in a long line of indie releases. Fortunately, the deep customization options implemented by Meneses help transform the experience into something a little more enticing. As you progress through the castle, Daniel will level up with every enemy he kills and every side quest he finishes. For every level reached, you’ll be able to dump five experience points into assorted stats for our hero. These stats cover both weapon skills and character attributes. So, if you want to become an axe-master, you can dump all of your points into your axe-wielding skills.
The more you level up, the more items you will have access to. Different items are acquired by opening various chests and barrels located in the castle, shopping at the multitude of shops found in the different areas of the building or by accomplishing side quests. Similar to just about every RPG ever made, most weapons, armors and spells are locked behind level barriers, so you’ll need to be careful with where you choose to place your experience points. I typically focused on my melee weapons, but I always made sure my spell-casting skills were also up to par.
The spell-creating and customization options help make up for the fact that Unepic lacks the tight controls seen in most of its contemporaries. Both jumping and striking, which is 90% of what Daniel does, feel stiff and clumsy. Leaping, in particular, was bothersome, as it often felt like I was getting stuck in mid-air instead of moving forward. Hitting enemies is equally slow, as Daniel has to slowly wind up with every strike. Sure, the enemies aren’t exactly speedy either, but it would have been nice if he moved with just a little more urgency.
Now comes the part I feel a little bad about bringing up: Unepic isn’t particularly nice to look at. I understand that this is the work of one individual, and that is an amazing accomplishment. Compared to just about every other game on the Xbox One, though, the title looks severely outdated. The character models lack detail, and are generic looking outside of a few of the bosses. Even worse to look at, though, are the drab backgrounds. You get a lot of dumpy looking dungeons to look forward to seeing, and the section of the game that takes place near a fire pit was a particular lowlight.
One other thing I want to mention, although this may just be limited to my experience with the title, is that for some reason, the edges of the screen were cut off on my TV. I couldn’t find a way to adjust the dimensions in the game either, so I was forced to deal with a limited view. The biggest fault with this is the fact that my health bar wasn’t on screen, so I was pretty much constantly forced to guess if I was close to dying or not. Considering the amount of information that is crammed onto the screen, I’m surprised there was no option in place to adjust the screen dimensions.
Despite the clumsy controls and lacking visuals, though, Unepic managed to surprise me quite a bit. Even taking away the fact that this is the work of Francisco Téllez de Meneses alone, I was impressed with the depth and action found here. The mixture of platforming and RPG mechanics, not to mention the brutal challenge it sometimes presents, seen here may not be for everyone. For those that are not only looking for something a little off the beaten path, but also difficult, though, Meneses’ epic adventure is well worth seeking out.
This review was based on the Xbox One version of the title, which we were provided with.
Unepic may lack the technical and graphical polish of its modern contemporaries, but the plethora of customization options and lengthy questing it features are more than enough to make up for its shortcomings.