UnchainBlades EXXiV - Import Retroview  

Working on the Chain Gang
by Michael Baker

More than 80 Hours
+ Wide variety of character/enemy designs
+ Good basic combat
+ Basic plot premise was interesting
- Dungeons were far too long
- Plot couldn't stretch far enough
- Subsystems not optimized well
Click here for scoring definitions 

   Enter a world of monsters and mayhem, where the humanoid portion of the populace are actually the larvae of great and powerful beasts. Ruled over by the goddess of hope and light, and dominated by massive colossi, it is a place of courage and conflict, enslavement and liberation. Oh how I wish that UnchainBlades EXXiV lived up to the potential provided by its setting.

   The story begins on a strong note, at least. Clunea is the goddess of the land — beautiful, powerful, but not necessarily popular with the masses. This becomes evident right at the start, when her right-hand angel stages a coup d'état that leaves her bound in chains and sends her heavenly palace crashing to earth. One year later, three young adventurers have a fateful encounter while exploring the ruins. Sofia is a pure young innocent who has no recollection of how she came to be there. Hilda is a dark, demure beauty who simply refuses to divulge her past. Ryuuga is a young man whose story is made known to the player early on, by dint of being the protagonist.

   As the last scion of the accursèd Ouroboros clan, Ryuuga is well aware of his fate. Unlike the majority of monsters in the world, the so-called infinite dragon loses all conscious thought upon full maturity, to become a ravenous force of destruction. Ryuuga knows that his time is coming soon, which should have added a sense of urgency to the story. Alas, the actual structure of the game works against this. In general, there is a burst of story at the start of a chapter, a bit more at the end, and two or three spots in between to help bridge the gaps or introduce new characters.

   The problem is that there is an awful lot of space to fill between plot points, as an average dungeon in this game can take ten to fifteen hours to work through. EXXiV boasts five Titans, great living dungeons who guard the sacred tabernacles of the Goddess. Within the tabernacles lies the chance for a single person to have their deepest wish granted, but the way is blocked by many obstacles. First, there are the hordes of adult monsters who have come to challenge the Titans, only to become lost within their own selfish thoughts and enslaved to the dungeon. Second, there is the guardian, the boss and avatar of the dungeon itself. Third, there is the general layout of the dungeons, which tend to be overly complicated messes of twisty, bendy passages. The length of these dungeons is not helped by the fact that neither sort of health-restoring points in the dungeons give MP — not even the one that's functionally an inn. Survival in these levels requires a huge amount of resource management, and rarely enough resources to work with early on.

You take the ugly one! Which one's the ugly one!? "You take the ugly one!" "Which one's the ugly one!?"

   While kudos should go to the design crew who made the Titans' internal floorplans match their theme and external appearance so well, there is a point where enough is enough. Overly complicated layouts, extremely recursive designs, and long, pointless paths to work around arbitrary roadblocks — all these define the gameplay in EXXiV for a majority of its ninety-plus hours of play. There are only seven dungeons in all, but they wear their welcome all the way through the carpet by the end.

   This is exacerbated by the fact that the first three chapters of the game are supposed to be happening concurrently. Once the prologue is finished, Ryuuga and the two young ladies go their separate ways, each to a different Titan. The player can choose the order in which they are played, but the fact remains that all three take around ten hours to complete and they cover the exact same level range. When one Titan is finished, the story takes the player over to the next one, to start all over again at a lower level and with limited resources. This means that about one-third of the entire game is spent between the levels of five and twelve. Only in the fourth chapter does everything come together for plot and party, and from then on it's a constant crush of minor and major difficulty spikes as the game tries to make up for lost time.

   Resources are a major source of headaches. While new arms and armor appear in the store regularly, the price tags can only be called exorbitant. The monetary rewards from battle, on the other hand, rarely exceed the double-digits. Finances dictate that most of the gear in the game must be produced on the cheap from matériel gleaned from monsters or salvaged from within the Titans. As well, a number of important consumable items, including the better sort of salvage tools and every single MP-restorative item there is, must be obtained via synthesis. However, many of the basic items needed to make these things can only be found with regularity in the first three Titans, so the player should get used to going back for more whenever necessary. To cap it off, even at the maximum level for the synthesis shop there's a decent chance that the process will still blow up in the poor alchemist's face, wasting a lot of time and matériel in the process. Save-scumming is recommended.

Oh, please. Like your deity isn't into the kinky stuff, too. Oh, please. Like your deity isn't into the kinky stuff, too.

   In any dungeon crawler, the battle system is going to be the most important feature, and it's no different here. EXXiV's combat is about as standard for the genre as it can be in most respects, though there are some twists. In many fights, there will be on obvious leader on the enemy side, and if that one is taken out first then the rest will become demoralized, confused, or paralyzed from fear. This can be very handy for temporarily neutralizing mobs in large battles. The seven major boss battles also switch up the formula, presenting colossal opponents with multiple weak spots to target. Finally, party members can stock up energy for powerful Burst skills, with the added ability to combine forces for a mixture of attack attributes. Most of the really interesting stuff happens in the support systems, however.

   As mentioned above, there are hordes of adult monsters living in the Titans who have been enthralled by their own selfishness and greed. Some are not so bound as others, and occasionally at the start of a fight the player will be informed that one or more opponents can be unchained, released from the psychic shackles of the dungeon, if a party member has a morale point to spend in the attempt and is able to pass the reasonably straightforward minigame. Unchained monsters will join as followers after battle. Party members, referred to in-game as masters, can equip up to four followers if they have the charisma/capacity to do so. These followers often have useful support skills that can boost certain of their master's abilities in combat, defend against specific elements, or add weak extra attacks to the mêlée. Followers also come with one or more types of anima.

   Anima is what makes the battles fly by. While the party members can learn many attacks from the skill grid, most of these require specific combinations of anima to be equipped via that character's followers. At its base, it's a pretty cool concept, but like many other things in this game it suffers from over-complication. There are more than thirty types of anima in this game, ranging from the usual elements (fire, ice, lightning, earth) and status effects (poison, silence, sleep), to physical attacks (slash, bash, pierce), monster speciation (dragon, spirit, divine, demon), and anatomical features (fang, claw, scale, feather). These are all represented by little kanji icons, some of which are so complicated that I personally cannot tell what they're supposed to be because they're so compressed. If a monster is raised the fifteen levels it takes for them to max out, they can be released in exchange for the first anima on their list. This anima can in turn be attached to any other follower at the synthesis shop. As a master can only have up to four followers, and thus only sixteen slots for anima, and more powerful skills will require multiples of a particular anima type, this necessitates some monster ranching and a lot of forward planning later in the game if the player wants to get a proper support stable together.

   The skill grid is another item that's cool in concept but lacking in application. A character gets two skill points each time they level up, plus another two any time the player chooses to have Ryuuga interact with them at an in-dungeon plot point. This means it takes a good long while to get anywhere on the grid, and the organization of the map makes things worse. Each character is proficient in at least two weapon types, but limitations in materiel and anima generally encourage the player to opt for one over the rest. The skill map is cluttered with weapon-usage boosts and minor techniques for all available weapons, however, meaning that a character will be forced to waste points on skills and support that they will never need, just to get at the things they do. For all that this system resembles the Sphere Grid of Final Fantasy X, the developer might have been better off eliminating the standard levels entirely in favor of a better realized skill grid and single weapon types per character.

Unchain my heart. Unchain my heart.

   One final gripe to be had with this game is organizational in nature. Namely, there are a lot of lists to go through, including a one-hundred-item party inventory, a huge storage space for overflow items, a roster of up to one hundred and fifty followers, and a synthesis menu that tops out at somewhere over five hundred types of advanced materials, consumables, and equipment. At no point is there an option to sort or divvy up the items on these lists, making for some major annoyance late in the game.

   In brighter news, the visuals in EXXiV aren't too shabby, even if they feel a little disjointed at times. The main cast of characters was each designed by a different artist as a sort of marketing ploy, and this provides a graphic variety that almost, but not quite, manages to form a cohesive look. The monster designs are more related in style even as they come in all shapes and sizes. Some are definitely based on others, but even the variants do more than just a simple palette swap. The dungeon graphics are serviceable and standard for the subgenre. Each level has a distinct feel to it, but in action it may remind one a little too much of the old Windows maze-running screensaver. There are a handful of animated sequences that are entertaining, but otherwise get lost in the depths of the game's run-time, as well as several splash images. These dramatic illustrations lean heavily on the cheesecake factor, and it's questionable whether they were drawn for the scenes at hand, or if the scenes were made to justify their use.

   The musical accompaniment was left to Nobuo Uematsu's band, the Earthbound Papas, and while prog-rock might be a questionable choice for a high fantasy title, it fits the game well enough. This is not a game to play for the soundtrack, but that doesn't make it bad. Only a few major scenes are fully voiced, with the bulk of in-game utterances being either post-battle quips or interjections used to establish who is speaking in a particular scene.

   UnchainBlades EXXiV was made with a certain portion of the RPGaming populace in mind, and the developers took that focus to an extreme that will be enjoyable mainly to hardcore fans of this subgenre. Some of its elements — in particular, the story — could have been presented better with different style choices, but overall it is what it is. This is a niche title with no hopes of mainstream success, and if its predecessor was even remotely similar, then I am not surprised that XSEED decided to forego a localization.

   And for the record, I still have no idea what EXXiV is supposed to mean.

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