UnEpic is a metroidvania-style side scrolling RPG, currently in development by Francisco Téllez de Meneses, and his team at Ninagames and available on Steam Early Access.
For fans of tabletop RPGs, UnEpic will quickly venture into familiar territory. The multiplayer tutorial consists of a malevolent gamemaster gleefully leading his cast of player characters through a dungeon filled with traps that, when activated, bring a swift death to the poor schmuck who was dumb enough to pull the lever at the end of a bridge spanning a pit filled with spikes.
The tutorial quickly sets the tone for the rest of the game, where you and your fellow adventurers navigate dungeons filled with monsters of all sizes, every kind of trap imaginable, and nasty bosses that will require cooperation of each of your party’s specialized members to defeat. The result is an often times infuriatingly challenging, yet greatly entertaining game that pokes fun at well-established tabletop RPG tropes.
Given the degree of class specialization that is to be expected from a game that draws heavily from the tabletop RPG experience, it makes sense that UnEpic would feature a similar system. However, unlike Dungeons and Dragons, and other pencil-and-paper counterparts, there is no time where the game forces you to decide on a class. Instead, the player specializes through assigning skill points to skills that may make their performance with weapons better, or maybe allow them to brew stronger healing potions.
This system lends itself well to playing UnEpic with a party of friends who each specialize into a certain skill area, as spreading points across all skill areas would make one very ineffective at skills that will be necessary to survive higher-level encounters. As such, I have spent most of my time with UnEpic on the multiplayer campaign, as I believe that the multiplayer experience is what the developer was most hoping to create in this game.
The multiplayer campaign is made up of seven campaigns that each follow the same formula: fight through a dungeon, collect treasure and experience, fight a main boss, and repeat. What distinguishes the campaigns is their theme. One is a standard fantasy dungeon crawl, another forces you to fight through a castle infested with sentient plant creatures that specialize in poison attacks. Unfortunately, at this point in the game’s development, each campaign is scaled to a certain level range. Campaign 1 is scaled to levels 1 and 2, campaign 2 to levels 3 and 4, and so on.
This means that if your party wants to move on in the game with minimal frustration and assuming about 1 level’s worth of experience is gained per run through of a campaign, a replay of each campaign will be necessary before moving on. This would be fine if the monsters scaled in difficulty to the adventurers. Instead, weaker monsters die faster and provide less experience, making the second run through feel like a grind for experience and money.
And oh will you need money. Every piece of equipment that contributes to combat modifiers or defense, like weapons, armor, and magic rings for example, has a meter tracking how much the player’s equipment wears down through use, and eventually the player has to pay to have it repaired. That seems perfectly reasonable at first glance. You take hits, your armor weakens; use your sword, and it becomes less effective.
Where this system causes trouble is that after the player reaches level 5, upon death, and you will die many, many times, regardless of whether any items were used in that lifetime, all equipment degrades a small amount. This quickly becomes a problem as your party tackles higher level dungeons. Even at level 8, tackling the level 8-9 dungeon, my party died so much that we entered into an epic death spiral where our equipment degraded to the point where we might as well have been poking our enemies with twigs and wearing armor made of single-ply toilet paper by the time we decided to throw in the towel.
To a certain extent, equipment wear makes sense. Weapons are plentiful throughout dungeons, so they are easily replaced. Armor, on the other hand, is very scarce, so losing your character’s only means of defense can result in the rest of the play session becoming an exercise in futility until the player visits the blacksmith to have their equipment repaired. The repair costs are also a bit out of scale. Compared with the amount of gold and loot found in a dungeon, assuming an equal split among party members, it becomes a struggle just to keep up equipment. This again, makes it feel like the party has to grind prior campaigns for money and experience to progress.
Speaking of inevitable death spirals, another flaw that makes the game feel like a grind instead of an epic adventure is the respawn system. Throughout the campaign, respawn checkpoints are hidden in various nooks and crannies that require a bit of hunting to find. They are designed as caskets, and a player can claim the respawn point for themselves, and until they claim another, they will respawn there. Unfortunately for those who are unable to find a respawn point, upon death they will respawn at the beginning of the level. The frequency of spawn points is hit or miss.
For some levels, spawn points are plentiful and the time to return to the front of battle is minimal. For others, like the aforementioned plant demon level, the closest spawn point to the boss battle can result in a two-minute long hike back to the boss room that is reminiscent of the scene from Spaceballs where President Skroob runs across the whole of Spaceball One. To make matters worse, one slip up on the platforming and you fall all the way back to your respawn point.
Which brings me to my biggest gripe about UnEpic: the platforming. Platforming in UnEpic does not feel smooth and intuitive. Far too often, jumps are situated so that the player must jump from precisely the right spot. Too far forward, and they will hit an overhang and fall to the bottom of the pit. Sometimes jumps are situated across from screen breaks. The case in question I’m thinking of led to a hard-to-access spawn point. But the difficulty of jumping across a screen break just felt forced and artificial instead of an actual challenging piece of platforming. Platforming mistakes just add unnecessary frustration to the whole enterprise.
Don’t let my griping detract from what positives the game has to offer, however. Combat is engaging and properly challenging when the player can engage in it for more than 30 seconds at a time. The game is full of lampshade-hanging that players of tabletop RPGs will no-doubt enjoy. My friends and I had to double check whether we were actually playing a video game, or our D&D campaign in video game form. The game in its current state has some serious flaws that should be addressed before the game moves into a release phase, and they should be brought to light so that they can be fixed in later iterations of the game.