While watching the trailer for Unepic to find out what exactly it was that I had signed up to review, it had occurred to me that I had watched a similar trailer for this very game on the Steam service. I obviously didn’t buy the game, or I’d have known what it was (which isn’t a knock against the game’s trailer, most of my games come from bundles or Steam sales), but the point is that the concept was interesting enough to me that I actually sat and watched the trailer. What I saw struck me as a humorous attempt at recreating the Metroidvania formula. What I got instead, from playing the Wii U version, was a port that squandered the few advantages it could have had by being made available for the platform it was released on.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of viewing the trailer yourself, Unepic is about a basement dwelling nerd named Daniel who, during a D&D game with his friends, realizes that he needs to take a leak. In an unfortunate turn of events, he finds out mid-pee that he has somehow wound up in a dark, mysterious castle. He thinks the whole thing is a hallucination, however (he had a lot of beer before this), so he uses the opportunity to have his own little adventure before finally coming to. How an individual wouldn’t discover pain (or lack thereof) right from the beginning is beyond me, though I suppose with all of the alcohol, anything is possible.
Daniel is joined partway through his adventure by a spirit that tries, unsuccessfully, to possess him. Despite his failure, he is now trapped in Daniel’s body and will say anything he can to cause Daniel’s demise and be free from his fleshy prison. This is perhaps the one and only strong aspect of the story or dialogue, as much of the advice given to you by Zera does not come with the certainty of it being the truth. It reminded me of the Demon’s/Dark Souls games, where any messages you ran across could lead you to a prize, or to certain doom.
Everything else about the plot falls completely flat. Daniel himself is rather insufferable, acting very arrogant and presenting himself as a sex starved pervert anytime a female creature of any species crosses his path. I mean, I understand that he thinks this is all just a fantasy of his, but as the player you are forced to witness the behavior of an individual that wasn’t likable even before any of these events took place. It doesn’t take long before you start rooting for Zera to send him into a snake pit.
Having a jackass main character would be fine if the writing managed to use it as a source of humor, though this too fails to inspire any laughs. The game will pause every now and then to throw some form of video game or pop culture reference at you, but it’s not done gracefully. Video game names are dropped in such a matter-of-fact way that the mentions come across as being done for the sake of just having them there rather than actually having a good reason to do so. The rest is rounded out by toilet humor and the occasional proposition of sex by Daniel.
If a game of this style can’t get by with its story, at least there’s gameplay to carry it through. While it may be the strongest aspect of Unepic, it still could have been much better than what we were given. Despite the game’s title, the developer managed to craft a castle of quite a large scope, decked out with two hundred rooms to explore and numerous side quests to complete. There’s quite a lot of content here for an indie title, which is why I was so disappointed to find that more time should have been spent polishing the basics.
If you’re familiar with the Metroid/Castlevania style of gameplay (find an item you need to progress and then backtrack to the area that requires it), you should instantly recognize the vision Unepic was going for. Since it’s a style of game I prefer to play with the controller, it seemed like a natural fit for the Wii U. Daniel can jump with B, attack with Y, and interact with objects using A. These basic actions can be reconfigured as you see fit, though it’s a good layout for the common functions. Nearly everything else accesses a map or menu of some form. Missing from this roster of maneuvers is any way to block or dodge attacks to compensate for the sluggish movement of Daniel. His attack animations are way too drawn out, even with the faster weapons, and if you happen to swing at multiple enemies stacked on top of each other, only one will take damage while the others pound away on you.
More than the combat, what ruined my experience the most was my inability to play with what I thought was the ideal setup. If you opt to play with both TV and Gamepad, you assign items from your inventory to your Gamepad so that, at the tap of the touchscreen, they can be used. I thought this was great and really played to the strengths of the system. You can even decide which potions or other consumables are tracked on this screen. My issue came from trying to see what was actually happening on the TV screen. Everything is zoomed way out so that you can see everything that’s occurring in a particular room. While this view is certainly useful to a point, it makes it very difficult to identify any potential traps or enemies located right next to Daniel. Compound that with the fact that every room is dark by default and you’ll soon understand why I think this game should replace the chart when you visit the eye doctor.
A quick press of the minus button will dump the action to the gamepad instead. This ends up being the preferred way to view the game, as not only is the action zoomed in, but can be zoomed out at will with ZL (a button that does nothing when viewing the action on the TV). This would be the ideal way to go, except now my inventory that was once on this screen is gone. I can tap on the touchscreen to bring it back up, but since it hides the action when I do this, it defeats the purpose. Why was the option to zoom in and out not added for the TV? Why is the text on the menus so small? This should have been the best version of the game for me, but with the added inconvenience, it makes it that much harder to overlook some of its flaws.
Even though the visuals were hard to identify, at least the audio department managed to deliver. The soundtrack during the adventure was suitably… um… epic, and despite the poor quality of the dialogue, the voice talent certainly did as well as they could given the material. Daniel sounds just as dislikable as the game presents him to be, and Zera does well as the conniving spirit that he is. There was one segment where a dog barks constantly as you attempt to navigate about a room, which was certainly irritating, and the low health warning is also quite grating. Aside from those examples, everything else pulled its weight.
Defeating enemies will net you experience points, which upon level up will grant you skill points to use in any way you want. What the game doesn’t tell you is that there is technically a wrong answer for point distribution. You see, each weapon and magic in the game can have points assigned to it. If you pool all of your points into one weapon, you may end up with a powerful weapon of a different type down the road that you can’t use because you lack the skill. However, if you evenly disperse everything, you’ll find that you’re too weak to do any meaningful damage. It doesn’t help that you can’t redistribute your points at will, at least not early in the game when it matters. There are four different difficulty levels, with the more challenging ones offering you more skill points (the tradeoff being the lack of autosave), but this does little to offset the expectation of the player to know what will come their way before it happens. Especially since a number of the enemies you face are susceptible to certain weapon types.
Even with the proper skill set, boss battles are something of a drag. Their patterns aren’t too difficult to learn, but they take forever to kill. There’s also one in particular that forces you to drop all of your items, which is just more annoying in design than anything. When you do finally fell them, you’ll earn keys that can be used to unlock the next area of the castle to traverse. Gated doors can be opened as you go along to create shortcuts to earlier areas. Scrolls are available to purchase too if you’d rather warp between shops and save points though.
At least the tutorials spread throughout the early part of the game function very well in getting you acquainted with everything. There’s even a crafting system in place for making your own potions so long as you have the recipes handy to do so. Oh, and let’s not forget about pets! Things like this really show some of the passion of the developers to create a sprawling adventure, complete with a lot of content to keep players invested. They even threw in unlockable challenges and an achievement system… which is why I was so disappointed that the game just couldn’t sink its hooks into me.
It’s very clear that there was a lot of effort invested in the design of Unepic, but as much as I wanted to like it, it just didn’t click with me. I think there is a specific sect of gamers that will appreciate the humor and the direction taken with this game, but I’m not one of them. Perhaps the addition of the multiplayer mode that the Steam version has would’ve helped out a little. At $9.99, the only reason it should cost me more on the Wii U than on the PC would be the convenience of the Gamepad and even that was lost in translation.
Short Attention Span Summary
Unepic comes to the Wii U with the promise of the conveniences the platform can provide, but fails to measure up as a worthwhile port. While playing on the TV, the action is so zoomed out that it’s difficult to see, yet playing on the Gamepad causes you to lose out on easy inventory access. The multiplayer mode is axed entirely and the game is priced a bit higher than its Steam brethren. As for the core game, the non-serious plot fails to inspire many laughs and the Castlevania style combat is far too clunky to maintain your attention for the game’s full twenty hour duration. In a way, Unepic is aptly named. There’s a very good game buried in here somewhere, but a lot of the design choices undoes much of what it tried to accomplish.