Unepic is an inspired platformer full of clever writing, quality level design, and deep character progression. It takes inspiration from the Castlevania and Metroid series but also traces its roots to World of Warcraft and Diablo. Combat and exploration pair well with the fish-out-of-water tale of a gamer trapped inside a game and provide ample opportunity for snappy, satirical dialogue full of pop culture references. Indeed, Unepic feels like a gamer-made game but in the best possible sense. Written, designed, programmed, and originally released in 2011 by Francisco Téllez de Meneses, Unepic is the definitive passion project. The question is, two years and a Steam release later, is Unepic ready for the prime-time?
Clever Story, Common Fantasy
As a gamer, the story of Unepic presents an appealing hook straight out of childhood fantasy: living The game opens with our hero, Daniel, sitting at a table with his buddies playing Dungeons and Dragons. Excusing himself to the bathroom, he thinks a trick is being played on him when the lights go out. Unable to find the door, he lights his Zippo to find himself in a castle hallway. Concluding his friends must have slipped him a mickey, he resolves to enjoy his hallucination and explore the castle. Through an unfortunate run-in with an evil spirit, Daniel is soon possessed by the evil and now trapped Zerathul. Together they explore the castle, Daniel coming to find his situation much more dire than he had thought and Zera, well, wanting Daniel to die.
The writing is smart and funny but usually depends on grasping some form of reference. Many of the game’s most smile-drawing moments are from well-timed shout outs to classic video games and movies. Within Unepic’s first half hour, Daniel cracks wise about The Legend of Zelda, The Goonies, and Castlevania. Being a child of the early-90s is not required to enjoy the game but it certainly helps. The relationship between Daniel and Zera also had me giggling. Zerathul is the Yin to Daniel’s Yang. Daniel, quick to react lightly and with a silent rimshot; Zerathul dire, dark, and murderous. Unepic is peppered with prods and jabs between the two and Daniel, seeing Zera’s clichéd demeanor, successfully tears down that outward appearance more than once. Those are moments of genuine character that drive the relationship on its evolutionary course.
Lest you worry that Unepic is purely satire, rest assured; it’s just mostly that way. There is a genuine story thread tracing the game’s 20+ hours, delivered in dialogue boxes and comic-style illustrations, and the looming question of ‘what happened in that bathroom’ hangs over all. You would be remiss to expect anything too serious out of Unepic but it occasionally trips over itself trying to be in the know. Téllez de Meneses could have gone much deeper with his hero’s tale with a touch more maturity. What is on offer is still entertaining, but I could have done with a few less game jokes and few more attempts at character and world building. Still, Daniel and his relationship does develop, mysteries and side-stories are explored, and the larger story remains a compelling carrot throughout the campaign.
New Take on Metroidvania
Gameplay should be immediately familiar to anyone versed in the Metroidvania style of gameplay. Daniel explores the castle and its many sub-areas through a series of larger and smaller rooms. On the game-map, these take the form of rectangles which change color when fully explored. Large rooms represent the full area of exploration in any given section and are made up of smaller rooms which need to be lit with torches and sconces. The kitchen area, for example, is several layers high. The bottom level of the stack is the kitchen proper. Climbing ladders and opening doors takes you to the second and third levels. Each is explorable with its own set of enemies, chests, and destructible objects. Occasionally you will stumble across a vendor to buy and sell you goods. Exploring each small room marks the rectangle on the map as explored.
Great concept. Clever writing. Tons of content.
Jokes sometimes fall flat. Combat and platforming can feel stiff.