Review: Nerds take over Castlevania in UnEpic
Games that strike a perfect balance of "brutal" and "fair" are hard to come by. Role-playing games like Dark Souls punish so mercilessly that some consider the rewards too few in between countless deaths and frustrations to be worthwhile. Not everyone finds that kind of torture fun.
One little game from Spain takes that challenging trial-and-error gameplay, makes it manageable, and blends it with the style of Castlevania, where every screen holds fresh hordes of enemies and traps, as well as shortcuts to make navigating a colossal castle drastically but not infinitely easier. UnEpic is the RPG for Dungeons & Dragons nerds who ever wished they could teleport away to a fantasy realm of dark priests and reanimated skeletons.
A newcomer to the pen-and-paper game, Daniel leaves his table of friends for a quick break that turns into a 20-plus-hour long adventure when the bathroom turns out to be a portal to a mysterious castle.
Daniel is much more fluent in the language of video games than tabletop RPGs, which is where UnEpic's humor comes from. Possessed by a demonic spirit upon entering the castle, he gives his new companion a nickname and goes along with what he thinks is a drugged-beer-induced hallucination. He uses his own logic to survive by embarking on quests he's not supposed to and making up stories to manipulate the creatures and spirits of the castle. He tells them he's Saruman or Jean Luc Picard or an agent of the great Harnakon, the castle ruler, so that he can earn their magic and eventually find a way home.
As they explore, players complete a castle map and can jot down notes about each room. One of the earliest items you acquire is the most useful: a “halo” that you can hotkey so it teleports you directly to the hub of the castle, where you can recover health and save the game. This is what curbs much of the difficulty and prevents it from becoming overwhelming. As players venture to new areas – the mines full of goblins, the catacombs riddled with undead, the gardens grown thick with dangerous plants and bugs – they can zip back to safety as soon as death looms near and then bank their progress. Even dying only sets you back a little way, as the game frequently autosaves your position.
This system keeps the game from becoming frustrating, for the most part. With each level up, players can distribute skill points into different weapons and stats, and the options only increase with every new gained ability. The problem is, overcoming some bosses and enemy situations is dependent on a mix of strengths, but you won’t know what they are until they’re needed.
I started out switching at will between swords, maces, polearms, and bows, using whatever one best fit my current purpose. Polearms were good for attacking stronger enemies while keeping them at bay, and bows served me well until I could learn magic. Heavier weapons like maces and axes can break barrels and boxes that conceal coins and items, but swords are quicker. I pumped points into these and other specialties only to discover that I didn’t need some of them later in the game, when I could only afford to concentrate on developing select skills. Instead of continuing to swap tactics on the fly – a refreshing approach – my priorities changed so that I finished the game mostly with axes and a bunch of wasted skill points. Worse, you only get one chance to respec.
I made it halfway through without experiencing the sweat and vulgarity of frustration, until reaching a boss that was stupidly hard. Neuron – a giant floating eyeball that casts mental spells – arguably requires the most resources, time, and persistence of all the bosses, but he was the first of several annoyances. Among them are tedious quests, ruthless bosses, and enemies with inconsistent respawns.
Aside from these changes, I like the gradual, incremental progression of UnEpic. I don’t fear death here like I would in Dark Souls, where demise means the loss of hard-earned souls, and the game doesn’t grease my palms with sweat like it would in an intense platformer such as Super Meat Boy. Yet it’s just as enjoyable if not more so. New areas are daunting at first, but by the time you’re ready to face the boss, you know them backward and forward. That’s a real feeling of accomplishment. Some scenarios are needlessly hard, however, like the final challenge that splits your attention two ways and costs considerable time and energy to complete. Redistributing stats once may not be enough to carry some players through the game.
UnEpic also features a multiplayer mode where you can partner with other players to try out cooperative dungeon maps or player-versus-player deathmatch or races. The pool of players seemed so small when I joined, though, that the matching system didn’t work as well as intended, and it would force me into quests that I didn’t want or that weren’t right for me. I felt like a burden on the higher-level players in my party.
For what it is, UnEpic is incredibly robust and never once feels boring. There’s a ton to do and see, from learning new magic to completing side quests and lighting every torch in the castle. It’s much more pure adventure than story, although the game has plenty of both. Unfortunately, the castle is a little too big to maintain a steady level of difficulty throughout, and that’s where the foundation begins to rot.