UnEpic, originally released in 2011 on PC before being ported to Wii U, Mac and Linux in 2014, is one of those games where the name just simply doesn’t do it justice. Developed largely by one man, Francisco Tellez de Meneses, it’s an indie title of considerable size and depth, and one that can now be enjoyed by Xbox One owners across the world. So, what’s it all about?
The game opens with Daniel, your average sci-fi and fantasy nerd, going for a pee in the midst of a heavy-going table top RPG game with his friends. Fumbling around in the dark, things take a strange turn when he takes out his lighter and discovers that he has been mysteriously transported to a foreboding castle. Believing he’s having some kind of hallucination, he decides to just go with the flow and enjoy himself, gaining a huge amount of bravado in the process. After encountering and being possessed by a dark shadow Daniel names as Zera, one thing is for certain: his journey throughout the castle, real or not, is certainly not going to be UnEpic.
Combining basic platforming with RPG elements and combat, UnEpic falls very much into the metroidvania sub-genre of games. Unlike its peers however, it also features a large dose of humour that gives it very unique appeal. Daniel, being the geek that he is, doesn’t think twice before quoting or referencing a huge number of pop culture franchises, and it’s done with such great panache that it is genuinely funny. From the recreation of the hugely comical Necronomicon book scene from Army of Darkness where our hapless hero struggles to utter those three important words, to the swindling Oracle that looks and sounds all too familiar to Star Wars’ lean green Jedi Master, nothing is spared if UnEpic can somehow use it to make you chuckle. More than anything, UnEpic feels like a love letter to the great Castlevania game series, with the gameplay, story, visuals and even music feeling very reminiscent at all times. It even goes so far as to wholeheartedly include the (in)famous “What is a man?” quote, that will remain beloved to fans of Symphony of the Night until the end of time.
With gameplay typical of a metroidvania title, it should come as no surprise that you spend your time adventuring through the strange castle you’ve found yourself in, defeating enemies as you go. Unlike games such as the later 2D Castlevania titles and Axiom Verge however, new areas are not gated off by skills, but by keys. To obtain the keys necessary to complete UnEpic, you are required to find and defeat seven guardians, each one of them dropping a key that will grant you to access an as yet undiscovered part of the castle and continue on your quest. Secondary to your task of obtaining the seven keys so that you may meet the lord of the castle, you also have the unusual duty of lighting candles as you go. It may not sound like the most exciting of responsibilities to undertake, but it proves to be beneficial as not only does it allow you to see better, it’s also a great indicator of when a room has been fully explored. For achievement hunters out there, lighting candles will be become an obsession, as a large number of points are tied to fully lighting specific areas of the castle and also reaching percentage milestones, just to give you a little extra motivation. Finally, whilst on your travels you also encounter quite a few individuals that offer you varied side-quests, and although most of them just require you to find or collect items, some of them truly ask you to put your thinking cap on. On the whole, they are worthy of your time though, as they often reward you with unique weapons or helpful pets that prove to be very useful. Sometimes you may need to travel far and wide around the castle to obtain the items you need for the side-quests, but thanks to various teleportation items and spells, as well as a quick travel portcullis system, it’s never too much of an arduous task.
An RPG wouldn’t be complete without some kind of character development, and UnEpic does not falter, allowing you deeply customise Daniel’s abilities to suit your playing style. Every time you level up you are awarded five points to distribute among a whole host of attributes, including proficiencies with multiple weapon types, magic varieties and armour types. Whether you choose to be a plate mail clad warrior like me, or a robe wearing master of the arcane arts, any build seems to be viable, but those not opting to specialise in any offensive magic would be wise to become skilled with a bow to make it easier to tackle those enemies that remain out of melee reach. One small issue to note however, is that with magic schools acquired as you complete quests for spirits imprisoned in gold cubes throughout the castle, you may not get the chance make that much use of them, or even have the available skill points to level them up to use higher level spells by the time they have been obtained. Sure, with the benefit of hindsight you can save your skillpoints for use when you’ve attained the magic school you want to specialise in, and you do also get a chance to respec your character one time only if you complete a certain side-quest quite far into the game, but it’s still an issue that may aggravate some players. Aside from levelling up to develop your character, you can also find and purchase a large number of weapons, armour, rings, spells and skills in the castle that can be used to both increase your stats and grant you a wider range of combat options.
Unfortunately, despite having a wealth of combat options available to you, dispatching your foes in UnEpic still feels a little underwhelming and basic. With no way to defend or evade attacks, melee combat usually ends up being tit-for-tat, especially against more formidable enemies that don’t have their attacks interrupted by your frenzied blows. Things are a little better once you’ve expanded your abilities, but with magic requiring resources and weapon skills relying on kill points to be used, their usage has to be rationed to when you truly need them. Ranged combat is undoubtedly easier and safer for the most part, but still has its issues due to the need to lock onto enemies to attack them when they aren’t on your level. With the right trigger simply cycling between all the enemies in view, this isn’t too much of an issue in itself, but getting hit whilst locked-on often breaks the lock, meaning you have to repeat the process all over again. This was particularly frustrating in one boss battle, where ranged combat was the only option and a whole host of enemies that were best left avoided made targeting the main foe a nightmare. My biggest bugbear with UnEpic’s combat however, is with its status ailments, which can be truly punishing and irritating as you reach the end of the game. Familiar ailments such as poison and burning generally aren’t too bad on their own, but can sometimes stack causing massive damage unless you have a potion or spell at hand to negate or slow their effects. On the other hand, ailments like “slippery hands” and “transform” won’t kill you but are dreadfully irritating, with the former making you randomly drop your currently equipped weapons for a considerable amount of time and the latter permanently transforming them into useless toys.
Completing UnEpic whilst lighting the whole castle and completing all side missions took me around 17 hours, and despite its combat issues and a few sour experiences with instadeaths it was largely a pleasure. I say largely, as I was let down somewhat by the game’s final sequence that I found to be both anticlimactic and genuinely frustrating. Combining the game’s rudimentary platforming with some awkward level design and an army of enemies with an RTS twist, the last section of the game really tried my patience, with death starting you back at the beginning of the whole turgid affair. Eventually, after exploiting the game somewhat, I overcame the challenge and enjoyed the surprisingly original ending that I obtained, but the last section would definitely make me think twice before playing through the game again. With multiple endings, challenges, and difficulty levels on offer, that’s a real shame.
Despite my gripes with UnEpic, it’s hard to not be charmed by it. With its lengthy adventure full of action, character development and humour, its positives more than outweigh its negatives, creating a highly engrossing and enjoyable experience for the most part. Additionally, whilst its visuals are basic and generic, its boasts a fantastic musical score that is sure to impress. If you’re a fan of action RPGs, there’s a great game here for you to sink to sink their teeth into, providing you can deal with the frustrations, and anyone else looking for a solid adventure with a great deal of humour should also consider checking it out. UnEpic may not be quite as epic as it could be, but it’s still a fantastic achievement that deserves your attention.