Unbound Saga is something I would probably have never touched if it hadn't gone on sale for $2 a while ago. It looked like a PS1 game from the screenshots, basically hoping that the fact that it was two player and that the second character's thong was hanging out would be enough to give it some sales. I picked it up because I can squeeze $2 worth of fun out of just about any game, especially one where I can make a second person miserable as well. After playing it all the way through with a buddy, I can definitively say that I got what I paid for.
Unbound Saga has a decent brawler crawling underneath its ugly exterior. If you want to punch faces around, this game will definitely let you do that. Unfortunately, I would say that it somehow has less enemy types than Final Fight. There isn't a lot of variety in what each enemy can do to you. There doesn't seem to be any fast or slow ones, but rather just a few different variants on a basic enemy. You might fight a reptile or a hobo, but all of them pretty much act and fight the same. Some of them might have weapons or more health, but there are few that are more dangerous than the other.
Even more shamefully, the bosses have almost no personality or ability to them. In a brawler, the boss of each area is a chance to come up with some cruel abilities and give them a look that makes them stand out. In a game style that doesn't exactly pride itself on its variety, the boss fight is the one time when you can cut loose and do something cool. Unbound Saga can't seem to be bothered, drawing up extremely boring people who look slightly different than regular enemies, but that's it. The game feels the need to announce when you're at a boss fight in each level, and I'm thankful for that, since I would never have guessed that these pathetic creatures were supposed to be the toughest and most unique things in their respective areas.
I didn't expect much in the way of enemy creativity, though, given how dull and bland each area looks. I really meant it when I said that the game looked like it came from the PS1. All of the enemies and characters look like they're made up from jagged polygons, and while they look nice for extremely early 3D, they look terrible for something made in 2010. It's jazzed up a bit in that the game is designed as if you are characters moving through a comic book, leaping across the binding and over staples onto the next panel, but this was done before. In Comix Zone. In 1995. It's shamelessly ripped from that game, and while it adds a little life to the visuals, it still looks very dull.
It looks like most of the work went into the cutscenes between the levels, which actually look pretty good. The story in the game is moved along by comic-book styled images, all of them looking like they were drawn in the heyday of books like Spawn and Gen-13. It creates a nice effect for the rest of the game, and they are pretty cool to look at, running through a bunch of different comic book genres. The shame of that is that they failed to really do anything interesting as they crossed genres. I would have liked to see a change in artwork follow every shift, instead of the same tired art style that I never really liked back when it was popular. That may be more of a personal preference than anything, but the Todd McFarlane art style was never something I really enjoyed, so seeing it in the game didn't do much for me, either.
It's not sounding all that interesting, is it? Well, the fighting in the game did have a little bit of depth that kept it fresh, actually. There is an experience system in it, one that hands out an upgrade at random points throughout the game. They are literally random, as far as I can tell, as there was never any counter or hint as to when the game would drop an upgrade. I could get one from one guy in one level, then get three in rapid succession (And I'm not talking about bosses. Those were the only reliable sources of upgrades), and then not see one for almost an hour. It was really strange, but each time one of those medals dropped, it was cause for excitement.
You've got two available characters to upgrade throughout the game, enough to keep you busy for a couple of runs through it. Each of them learns a different moveset, with an array of combos you can do with certain presses of the button. Rick focuses on straight punching combat, giving you more strength or resistance to damage, but if you really want to do anything interesting, Lori is where it's at. She has her own magic system in place, giving her a choice of different ways to make combat simpler. She can summon clones, poison the enemy, go invisible, and heal herself, all almost at will. Sure, you have a stamina bar that drains as you use each of these powers, but it drains in the same way the Metal Blade drains Mega Man. The draw is so negligible that there is no reason you shouldn't be using all of your powers whenever you feel like it.
When you start to get control of all of her powers, you start to notice that the game gets to be pretty fun. The array of things you can do to the enemies, however plain your opposition may be, makes for a pretty enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. It left me laughing as I watched the enemies crumble before the constant barrage of things I was throwing at them, all while hiding in shadows and being able to refill my own health.
The shame is in playing as Rick. Without anything all that meaningful to do, all he's left with is a few combos that no one will probably use, since smashing the X button works just fine, and a few special abilities that move too slow or take forever to get working. The guy gets a power that lets him quadruple his strength, but it requires you holding two buttons for about six or seven seconds straight. It takes forever to get it going, and on top of that, there is no indication that it's working. I tried about a dozen times to get it to work, each time giving up and wondering what I was doing wrong. Since it takes so much time to start up, and your character doesn't do anything to show that he's charging or anything like that, the average person's conclusion is probably going to be the same as mine. Barring persistence, it will literally seem like half of Rick's attacks just don't work.
And beyond its semi-interesting combat, there just isn't much of anything to draw you in or keep you playing Unbound Saga. The weird plot about comic books and video games, done in a self-referential way, was all right, but won't be enough to keep you from skipping the scenes altogether. The art is pretty bland in those same cutscenes, but is nowhere near as bad and uninspired as it is during the game itself. The enemies may all have different looks, but all act and fight the same. The sad part is, though, is that every one of these problems showed promise. Every little gripe I had about this game boiled down to not enough work being put into it. If most of these things had been shown a bit more care, they could have had a really good brawler on their hands. As it stands, if you can find it for cheap, it's a fun way to pass a single afternoon. If you're looking for the next beat 'em up to have your friends come play, you're gonna have to keep trying.
If you somehow liked Unbound Saga, you might also like...
Castle Crashers – At almost double Unbound Saga's normal asking price, you might think I'm being ridiculous. This game is worth every penny, though. It has a plethora of playable characters, over forty different equipable weapons, a dozen animal companions, huge and varied areas, and an art style that has personality and humor. It's everything a modern brawler should be, and playing it with four players is pure joy.
Final Fight: Double Impact - With a pounding new soundtrack by Simon Viklund, this game is face pounding at its finest. It's pretty basic, but the laugh out loud nature of its bad guys combined with a solid combat engine make this a blast to play for an hour or two. You also get Magic Sword in the entry price, although I find that game extremely dull.
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