Unepic PS4 Review
Beautiful level design
A world worth exploring
Well-adapted for Dualshock 4
A satisfying challenge
Amusing but questionable dialogue and characters
Unconventional platforming control
Some unclear visuals
Not well-suited for large displays
Unepic is a Metroidvania, 2D dungeon crawler developed by Francisco Téllez de Meneses along with a modest list of collaborators. Originally released to PC in 2011 and later making its way onto Wii U, PSVita, Mac OS, Linux, the well-received indie title now arrives PS4. Despite the name, Unepic quickly unfolds into an epic journey – twenty-five to thirty hours on a blind playthrough – packed with enjoyable geek culture references and set in a beautifully designed network of dungeons. It’s a remarkable game built upon return-to-roots mechanics and meticulous craftsmanship on the part of the developer and a worthy tribute to the joys of exploration and discovery found in the games of yore.
You play as a D&Der that find himself lost in a dungeon when he decides to go to the bathroom in the middle of a tabletop campaign. As he begins to come to terms with the “hallucinated” castle, he’s inhabited by an evil spirit who claims to be a protector of the dungeon. Somehow rendered powerless and trapped by his attempt to possess our hero, the spirit develops into a sarcastic commentator along the way bent on guiding our hero to his doom. Players must uncover the castle’s secrets, loot its treasures, and defeat its overlords in a search for purpose behind the journey.
Dialogue is self-aware and littered with Star Wars, StarCraft, Dune, D&D references and more. The writing can get overly silly at times but decently serves to present the game’s light-hearted spirit. I would’ve prefered it if there’d been some more wholly original characters rather than some of the spoof characters: while Yoda-based “Yogurt” oracle did bring an initial chuckle, the concept of the parody wore out all too quickly. Overall, sci-fi and fantasy fans will find plenty of amusing referential humor but none that survives its first few chuckles.
Players gear up their hero with weapons ranging from battle axes to Star Trek phasers to defeat the castle’s satyrs, serpents, and ghouls. Combat is simple and plays well, balancing different combat styles through attack interruption and by allowing players to stat-up weapon masteries. Loot is abundant but never steals the spotlight. Drops occur often and generally sync up with your level, encouraging you to maintain the course of the story rather than grind, though either is an option. High-end armor and weapons are found in higher difficulty areas and a few level requirements among vendors, while somewhat frustrating, manage to keep you from becoming too powerful prematurely. Players gain experience by killing enemies and completing quests. Every level grants three stat points which can be put toward upgrading health, armor, and weapon masteries.
Similarly, I never felt a dire need to grind for levels before tackling more difficult areas or enemies thanks to the really well-paced level design and exploration. The actual strategy required to navigate room and trap layouts is fair but can prove brutally challenging; I actually spent a good half-hour stuck on my very first trap maze. But that was part of the allure. The more difficult moments of Unepic were incredibly gratifying, delivering an exciting pay-off for preparation and practice. I wouldn’t be surprised if players attempted underpants-only speed runs, à la Dark Souls (sort of), as the game feels great in both short and long sessions.
Platforming makes up a decent portion of puzzles and is often required to avoid enemies or reach certain areas of each room. The actual execution of jumps plays differently from what I’m used to in platformers: directional commands have little influence once your character’s left the ground, whereas most platformers leaves players with fluid command of their character’s trajectory. In other words, you’ll need a running start to traverse any obstacles. It wasn’t easy to get used to and brought about my demise perhaps a couple dozen times before I finally got a handle on it. It isn’t necessarily bad; it’s just different and, in my case, a hurdle that needed surmounting.
Boss battles are all unique though some felt rather dull when compared to the nuances and challenge present in the rest of the game. Despite some exceptions, nearly every boss felt like it only had one solution to draining its health to zero. It didn’t help either that many of them only featured one or two attack patterns and a single phase. When Unepic isn’t afraid to throw punishing puzzle segments, intricate level designs, and unforgiving hordes of mobs at players, one-trick boss battles come off as undercooked and meagerly satisfying to overcome.
There’s an incredible amount of meaningful exploration and content in Unepic. The map is threaded with paths that twist, turn, and finally interconnect in ingenious ways. A few dead ends in each area act are bold and deliberate, cradling either bits of story, vendor locations, quest items, or boss battles. Just like Ocarina, just like Bloodborne, I was initially overwhelmed by navigation in such an intricate dungeon map but quickly took to memorizing every crevice of every room without effort but simply playing the game. It’s that well-crafted.
From grimey dungeons to ant-infested mines to the guts of a volcano, all your typical dungeon-crawling environments are represented here. While the rife with secrets, quests, and surprises, the larger picture doesn’t have have many twists to it and is, in a way, generic; however, that isn’t to say it isn’t exciting. You’ll find your dragon boss by the lava, your worm in the mine, etc. All things we know. The journey does a great job of reVitalizing what we’ve come to expect, not quite by innovation but by competence. That is to say, if developers had created a completely original story, rather than a humorous, referential one, Unepic would be just as great, if not better.
Visually, the game looks and runs great, though some environmental elements could’ve been better presented: The main in-game view is broad and packs a lot of detail into a single glance. Dark-colored enemies like bats and small objects like ropes and torches are incredibly tiny and barely visible on my HDTV. Fixed ropes used to cross pits, for example, are so thin and easy to overlook, I got stumped more than once on how to proceed simply because I couldn’t see them. In an annoying trade-off, maxing out the game’s gamma did make things some items more visible but ruined others in turn – particularly already bright ones. A zoom feature tied to L2 let’s you close in on the action and usually helped me make out smaller details. Still, it wasn’t always so obvious that I needed to look in the first place. My best experience came when streaming from my PS4 to my laptop using Sony’s recent PC remote-play app; the smaller, 13” display made the wide perspective much more pleasant.
I never got around to playing any of Unepic’s previous versions so I was skeptical as to how well such a detailed inventory-oriented throwback would hold up when limited to the Dualshock 4. Luckily, thanks to some mildly intricate yet quick-to-learn hot-keys settings and great joystick adaptations, the overall experience plays great and without hassle. A somewhat cluttered HUD lays out all your custom hot-keys, quest info, and more along the bottom of the screen. While visually inelegant, it’s noticeably practical, particularly once you find yourself cycling through inventory.
Unepic is a welcome edition to the PS4’s growing indie library. It’s a competent port of an outstanding title that quickly outgrows its slight lean on nostalgia and geek-culture. The dungeon is so interesting and so tightly knit, I actually found myself wandering about the week with the castle’s layout on the mind. My hope is to see even more from the developer; for them to continue on to create a successor or even an entirely new IP. If Unepic says anything, it’s that they really know how to make games.