Unepic’s first real shot at a big laugh takes a little while to arrive. During a brief toilet break from a Dungeons & Dragons game with his stereotypically nerdy friends, protagonist Daniel finds himself stumbling around in the darkness, emerging to find he’s been transported to a mysterious castle. He’s soon possessed by a malevolent wraith named Zera, before recovering a sword and encountering his first enemy: a snake. Striking it down, he hears the rasping voice of the spectre inside him mourn the creature’s passing in a familiar fashion: “Snake? Snake? Snaaaaaake!”
Your reaction to that will likely determine your feelings towards Unepic’s dialogue, if not its systems. This is a platform-RPG that imagines a meeting between Castlevania and Terraria, before drunkenly interrupting it with geek-culture gags and references that will likely date the game more than its old-fashioned mechanics. Within the first hour or so Dan greets an enemy by declaring himself a Sith named Dark Helmet, while a pile of cursed gold leads him to muse that he can finally afford “the new console”. An exchange about swords being unable to harm incorporeal enemies is better, but the jokes miss more often than they hit. And yet its dogged determination to keep cramming these references into its script can be curiously disarming; while the voice acting isn’t top-tier, its cast works hard for the few laughs it does provoke. The interplay between Dan and Zera throws up some of the best lines, with the latter initially wanting Dan to perish so he can be free of his fleshy prison, though it’s no surprise to witness the shifts in their uneasy alliance as the story progresses.
The same applies to the rest of Dan’s quest which, despite a few wrinkles in the formula, proceeds in an entirely predictable fashion. As you map out the vast interior of Unepic’s castle, you’ll quickly realise the title is misleading in terms of the length of your adventure, though it arguably still applies to the game itself, which somehow lacks the weight and grandeur of its inspirations. The lacklustre graphics don’t help – despite some neat light and shadow effects, it lacks a strong visual signature. Most enemies are fantasy archetypes, while others benefit little from lo-fi sprites that lack both the character of the 8 and 16bit era, and the fidelity of its contemporary peers.
Developed mostly by one man in his spare time, Unepic’s scrappy looks can be excused. Its inelegant combat, however, is less easy to forgive. Tapping the attack button repeatedly is enough to deal with most enemies, whether it’s from close range with a mace or a sword, or from distance with a bow. Occasionally you’ll need to jump or duck projectile spells, but once you’ve hit an enemy that’s usually enough to stun them into submission, at which point you can finish them off without fear of reprisal. Things get a little more complicated when one of their companions steps into the fray, though often you can simply descend a ladder and return when they’re in a more favourable position.
Different weapons naturally have different strengths: their effectiveness varies according to who or what you’re hitting, and how you’ve allocated the five skill points you earn each time Dan levels up. Given the slight delay when swapping equipment, it’s often safest to simply keep attacking with your current weapon, though you’d be wrong to try and specialise: allocate too many points to swords, for example, and the process of beating an enemy that’s only weak to maces will be an arduous one, as each swipe delivers only single-figure damage.
Your opponents are not particularly intelligent, but a single hit is enough to take an alarming chunk from your health meter. At times, this highlights the game’s poor difficulty scaling: you’ll breeze through one area without so much as a scratch, before wandering into a new room that sees you dead within seconds. On the standard difficulty settings the auto-save is frequent enough for this not to be too big a setback, but on Hard and Hard+ (where enemies can detect your presence before you’re even aware of them) the combination of forced manual saves and the paucity of save points makes each death profoundly irritating. A challenge is rarely unwelcome, but Unepic doesn’t so much reward careful, intelligent play as prize over-cautiousness. An early game sequence in a trap-filled labyrinth requires you to tiptoe at a tediously slow pace to proceed, rather than asking you to overcome it with a combination of dexterity and cunning, as a better game would.
There are a few neat touches: the GamePad screen makes for an immediate, intuitive way to manage your inventory, while you can set a variety of shortcuts for swifter access to key items. There’s a wonderfully overblown pop-up for quests and achievements, too, its pronouncements accompanied by a pair of cackling skulls. It’s a pity they sound like they’re having a much better time than you: Unepic is a perfectly serviceable platform-RPG, but Unremarkable might have been a more apposite title.