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Digressions In Digital: Unepic

In my Digressions In Digital feature series (the first of which, an article on survival horror Outlast, can be seen here), I take a look at videogames which were released in digital format and which I think are worth discussing, and this time it’s the turn of Unepic, the 2D RPG platformer created primarily by Francisco Téllez de Meneses (with the help of several other people). Unepic was released on PC in 2011 and later on Wii U in 2014, and it’s the Wii U version I’ll be discussing in this article.

Inspired by Konami’s MSX title Knightmare II: The Maze of Galious, Unepic casts the player as Daniel, a twenty-something fan of movies, tabletop RPGs, comic books and videogames, who one evening is suddenly transported from the real world to a fantastical dimension, specifically the sprawling castle of Harnakon which exists within it. Initially armed with nothing but a lighter, the clothes on his back and a sizeable knowledge of pop culture (oh, and a crappy, little chin-beard), Daniel must navigate the dark, hazardous castle in an effort to return to his own reality.

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In terms of its structure, Unepic is a Metroidvania, the castle being split up into separate areas and dozens of individual rooms, with the majority of areas being inaccessible until you find the corresponding keys, although it should come as no surprise that the keys essential to your progress are guarded by deadly bosses. Your map of the castle gradually expands as you explore the numerous rooms, and the distinct sections of the castle are highlighted in different colours, which helps with navigation and remembering which area is which. And as the map shows, Unepic is a large game, offering plenty of hours of adventuring for those who seek it.

Although almost the entirety of the game takes place within the walls of the castle, its distinct sections offer enough variety in their respective scenery and enemies that exploration never becomes boring or repetitive, your journey taking you through sewers, gardens, kitchens, a mine, a library and more. The level design is excellent, making traversal of the castle interesting and enjoyable, and while the game-world is indeed a large one, exploration is encouraged and made more convenient by the gates you unlock in your travels. These are all connected to a hub room, so the more gates you unlock throughout the castle, the more fast-travel points you have available, which saves a great deal of unnecessary backtracking. There are also several teleportation items available which allow you to teleport to specific points in the castle.

This convenience can certainly be something to be grateful for, as Unepic is a fairly challenging game, with thankfully little in the way of hand-holding. For the reckless, death can come swiftly, whether via one of the hidden traps scattered around the castle or at the hands of an enemy such as a skeleton, golem, sorcerer, oversized serpent, orc, murderous plant, or something else just as intent on killing you. The game does offer several difficulty levels to choose from, so you’re free to lessen or increase the challenge as you see fit.

Despite its many dangers, Unepic encourages the player to explore not just by the use of its fast-travel system but also its inclusion of several other features: destructible walls, hidden behind which are usually items; characters who offer you side-quests, the completion of which can reward you with experience, gold or items; and shops at which you can buy and sell gear.

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Ah, the gear. Unepic is bursting with equipment and items, the game featuring a massive array of weapons, clothing, magical scrolls, potions and various other objects. Although you can only carry a set number of items, your storage space can be expanded later in the game, and you can also unlock a secure room used for storing items you don’t want to carry on your person (although this room is annoyingly small, for some reason). Items dropped by defeated enemies can be stolen by jawa-looking thieves if you don’t collect them quickly enough, so this is something to look out for, especially if you kill an enemy at range.

Weapons include swords, axes, spears and bows, amongst others, and many of these boast additional qualities such as fire, ice or poison, so a particular weapon can be extremely effective when used against an enemy weak to that particular status effect. Personally, for much of the game I opted for a flaming sword and poisonous bow, the latter being especially useful, as a long-range attack option is often very important in standard areas as well as during boss fights.

For those players more inclined to be a Gandalf than a Conan (the Barbarian, not the talk show host), Unepic contains an impressive selection of spells and magic-focused items, including robes which can be worn instead of armour. Some spells are simple and direct, such as fireballs and blasts of ice or light, while others are more involved and interesting: you can put an enemy to sleep, turn an enemy against its allies, teleport items to your feet, become invisible, and more. Although I used a couple of simple spells now and again while playing the game, I never opted for a magic-focused build, but the range of magic-based options made me think that it could be a lot of fun to try.

Powers and bonuses can also be granted via potions, with effects including healing, seeing hidden traps, slowing down the rate at which poison damages you, and increasing your weapon damage. Potions can be found within the game-world, purchased from a merchant, or created by you as long as you have the necessary ingredients and a glass vial of the correct size.

Whatever skills you decide to focus on, you can increase your expertise in these skills by applying the skill points you earn every time your character levels up, experience being gained by defeating enemies and completing side-quests. As well as increasing your maximum health, you can use skill points to develop several different fields of magic, allow you to wear better armour or robes, increase the number of potions you can create, increase your melee damage, and more.

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While all of the options available to you might sound overwhelming, especially if you’re trying to switch between various things on the fly, Unepic on the Wii U actually does a fantastic job of keeping things clear and user-friendly by giving you the ability to assign a number of weapons, spells and items to various buttons and button combinations on the GamePad. The controller’s screen shows you what you have assigned to which controls, so forgetting your choices isn’t a problem, and switching them is quick and simple.

Although the Wii U version of the game offers this useful GamePad functionality, sadly the port doesn’t include the multiplayer feature which existed in the PC version. I wasn’t even aware of this mode’s existence until after completing the game on Wii U, and it’s a shame that multiplayer wasn’t included in the port, as it’s something I would have liked to try.

A particular gameplay mechanic worthy of mention is the torch-lighting. Unepic’s Castle Harnakon is a dark place, but this darkness can be offset to a degree by lighting the wall-mounted torches found in almost every room of the castle. Lighting the torches can reveal enemies and traps which you might otherwise have missed, but they can also help with exploration, as a fresh light source might reveal a ladder or door. Lighting all of the torches in a room triggers a notification, so if you light all of the torches you can see but don’t receive this notification, you know there’s still at least one torch hidden in a darkened part of the room. This is yet another way in which Unepic encourages and rewards exploration.

Lighting specific numbers of torches are listed amongst the in-game achievements, many of which are earned simply by mandatory progress through the game. But alongside the achievements are the challenges, a list of optional and much more obscure and difficult tasks which reward you with “Unepic Points”, a separate currency used to buy items which can’t be purchased with gold. Not only are some of these challenges very difficult but they’re also hidden throughout the castle, so before you can attempt them you must first find them. Already a large game, Unepic’s achievements and challenges allow it to offer even more content, which is obviously great for those players enjoying the game and wanting to get everything they can out of it.

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Unepic’s graphics are fairly simple but they do the job – the characters, weapons and items are clear enough that you can always tell what is what, and it could be argued that the simple graphics jibe well with the game’s old-school leanings. While personally I think it would have been nice to see a little more detail in the scenery here and there, it’s to the game’s credit that the atmosphere remains immersive throughout. The music is also effective, being subtle and used sparingly.

The game’s plot is decent but nothing special (although there are a couple of interesting twists later in the game), while the dialogue is generally pretty strong throughout. However, one aspect of the writing which might grate on people is the abundance of pop culture references, from Star Wars to Starcraft to Chuck Norris. While some of these references are genuinely amusing (any game in which Admiral Ackbar cameos gets my seal of approval), others are far from it. (Chuck Norris jokes? Really?)

Alongside the better of the references, one of the strongest aspects of the writing is the relationship between Daniel and Zera, the latter a malevolent spirit who guards the castle from intruders and who inadvertently becomes trapped in Daniel’s body early in the game. Although Zera is forced to accompany him, the spirit’s goal remains for Daniel to die, and so Zera lies to him and gives him bad advice on several occasions in an effort to get him killed. This doesn’t really affect gameplay and is instead restricted to the narrative, but I love the idea of playing as a protagonist accompanied by a guide who is trying to kill you, and I wish this idea could have been expanded further into the gameplay somehow. Also, Daniel and Zera’s dialogue is brought to life by really good voice acting, although the voices behind some of the lesser characters aren’t quite up to the same standard.

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Although they aren’t grievous enough to spoil the overall experience, Unepic does contain a couple of glaring flaws which I should mention. Firstly, at one point you fight a boss who possesses mind-control abilities, and while I don’t want to give too much away, I will say that the idea behind how the fight plays out sounds interesting in theory but is flawed in execution, leading to a boss fight which can be extremely frustrating and unfair, and which can have an annoyingly adverse effect on your playthrough even after the fight itself is over.

Secondly, the final section of the game is a drawn-out battle which hits you with a sudden difficulty spike (even if your character is at a fairly high level, as mine was) and which drags on for far too long – die and you have to repeat the whole section over from the beginning, and rather than being any fun, it just feels like a chore. It’s a shame that the game’s final obstacle is so annoying in comparison to the majority of the game.

But in the end, these are just a couple of flaws in what is an otherwise excellent game. Unepic feels like an old-school RPG in some ways, but it’s also one sprinkled with plenty of modern design elements which improve the experience, not to mention a great deal of depth and variety in its gameplay. If you’re an RPG fan looking to undertake an atmospheric and challenging – not to mention downright fun – adventure, Unepic is a great choice.

Also, if you’ve ever wanted to cause an orc to “lose his mojo” by placing leeches on his wang while he’s asleep, then 1: Unepic is absolutely the game for you. And 2: you’re a strange, strange person.

Alex De-Gruchy

Alex De-Gruchy is a writer and editor of fiction and non-fiction whose work covers videogames, comic books and prose. His upcoming comic book work includes two graphic novels from Markosia Enterprises. In terms of videogames, he has worked as a writer on iOS action / strategy title Crystal Arena while his upcoming videogame projects include a shoot-‘em-up, an action-RPG, an interactive novel, and action-adventure Edelin Tales: Portals of Doom. Marvel at more wordy outpourings from his brain-meats on Twitter: @AlexDeGruchy.

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