Reviewed: June 1, 2006
Released: March 28, 2006
When the PSP arrived last year it came with what is perhaps the largest and most varied library of software titles ever seen at launch day. Everything from sports, racing, action, arcade, and even RPG games were available. The original Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade was the runaway hit at launch with many stores sold out. After all, when you can compact the scope and quality of a major console RPG into the palm of your hand, what true adventurer wouldn’t want a copy?
A year has past and the PSP is still going strong and so is Sony Online’s franchise with the recently announced Dark Kingdom for PS3 and the subject of today’s review, Untold Legends: The Warrior’s Code. This new title continues to enhance the Untold Legends franchise with improved gameplay and much higher production values, both in visuals and sound.
While Brotherhood of the Blade tested PSP waters to see if an RPG game could thrive (or even survive) on the PSP, The Warrior’s Code exploits the full potential of the genre and the PSP with gorgeous new cutscenes to tell the deeper story along with spoken dialogue for all the lead characters and NPC’s. For those who never played the original or read my review, my biggest complaint was having to wade through hundreds of pages of text, making the game more of an interactive novel than an RPG.
The improved presentation is only half of the package, and The Warrior’s Code also enhances the core gameplay of the original with a new upgraded combat engine that makes use of more strategic combat, new moves, special abilities, interactive boss battles with improved AI, and the new Attacks of Opportunity and Changeling features.
As with any RPG, you start by building your character from numerous choices that include professions, sex, and the assignment of various attributes. This is the core on which you will build your adventure over the next several weeks of adventuring. I did find it odd that choosing male or female characters was locked to specific classes. Apparently discrimination is one beast that hasn’t been defeated.
The standard combat has been greatly enhanced with up to six attacks per character inputted with the D-pad and two of the face buttons. This system allows for greater flexibility in creating some unique and powerful combos and the special charging attack is always in the back of your mind in the larger encounters.
The Warrior’s Code packs in a comprehensive collection of magic and skills along with items and weapons. The new character management screen is now much more intuitive and easier to navigate, but you’ll likely discover some balancing issues, not only between the various weapons, but with the entire game. RPG veterans will likely amass such skill and power by the midpoint that the second half of the game will be a cakewalk.
Regrettably, the newest features are also the buggiest, or at least not very well designed. The Attacks of Opportunity are basically cool finishing moves that are triggered after you have stunned an opponent and are within range to trigger the special attack. There are typically three variations of this special attack based on how good your reflexes are. It’s a great premise but poorly executed in that I simply couldn’t do them more than 10% of the time. Not only is the timing off, your proximity to the enemy is also a factor, and given that many enemies will shake off their “stun” before you can prime the AO, this is one facet of the combat that you’ll seldom use.
The Changeling form is a great idea on paper but doesn’t integrate into the gameplay very well, and it’s certainly not balanced correctly within the scope of the grand adventure. Basically, each character can turn into a creature and that monster form comes with its own attack, slightly more powerful than your base human form attack, at least until you start upgrading and getting more powerful weapons. At this point, your beast form is actually less powerful than your conventional attacks negating any desire to shapeshift. Even your single magic charging attack in beast form is no fair trade to the magic you forfeit when not playing in human form.
Even worse, is that there is no real reason to ever need or want to switch to the Changeling form. If the designers had given you special combat encounters or environments that required the beast form it would have gone a long way in selling this new gameplay feature. As it is, Changeling is just a novelty that will wear off after a few experiment shapeshifts.
The overall style of gameplay hasn’t changed and you are still going to be going on numerous scavenger hunts and challenging boss after boss, but in The Warrior’s Code almost everything you do seems to have a greater impact on the story. The first game you played because it was there and you wanted to finish it. In the sequel, there is actually a narrative to string you along as well as some cool new missions that feature NPC warriors who will join you for a short time. There are even some puzzle elements thrown in to make you think during exploration and even combat.
The one new feature that does work is the online gameplay. Sure, the first game supported wireless local play, but how often do you really get together (in wireless range) and play a lengthy RPG on a handheld system. With the newly added Internet support you can jump into the adventure anytime with anybody, anywhere. After all, this is Sony Online; should we expect less.
There is an impressive number and variety of game modes for adventures who like to compete alone or team up for monster battles, gold collecting, and even a clever variation of Capture the Flag. There is nothing built into the online interface for balancing, so it’s up to the gamers to keep things fair. New players will likely get slaughtered if they try to compete with experience adventurers. At least the pre-match screens for online play show everybody’s vital information so you can tweak the roster before starting.
The only real downside to the multiplayer modes is a lack of communication. There is no chat interface and Sony’s voice headset is still vaporware, although this game doesn’t support it even if it existed. There are some pre-generated responses you can use to send simple message between players but they are hardly complex enough to carry out informative conversations.
Technically, both the solo and online game work great. The load times on the solo game are greatly improved and playing online is usually a smooth experience, at least until you get four characters all unleashing magical attacks with all of their corresponding visual flair. Then things start to slow down.
The Warrior’s Code is definitely a pretty game with larger and more complex levels. The levels are no longer randomly generated which takes away from the replayability of the game, but it does allow for more intelligent and detail level design that fits with the scope of the story and mission. The environments seem much more realistic (in a fantasy way).
Special effects are vastly improved with better lighting, shadows, and particle effects. Oddly enough, the top-down camera angle actually shows off the smoothly animated shadow of your character more than the actual character and the shadow will shift dynamically to fit with the current light source. There are plenty of subtle lighting nuances to help you locate treasure or other important objects or locations that might otherwise be missed on the smaller screen.
It seems that I am continually complaining about games that are too dark, a problem that is even more annoying on handheld systems where you cannot always control your gaming environment. Thankfully, The Warrior’s Code is more than bright enough to play in most indoor areas. Given the dungeon crawl aspect of this game I was more than surprised.
Character design is only slightly improved over the original. As expected, they look much better in their equipment screens and are hardly visible in the game. There is some impressive and smooth animation for the various attack moves and combos, all of which are accompanied by cool and colorful lighting effects. Those same in-game character models are used for the cutscenes, and things aren’t as pretty when you see these simple models up close.
The worst thing about the original Untold Legends was the soundtrack that was composed with less than a dozen notes that cycled for 20+ hours. I still can’t get that tune out of my head. There is much more musical variety and it’s all better quality, but it still falls a bit short given the length of time required to beat this game. You’ll certainly hear tracks repeating but at least the music isn’t painfully annoying.
Sound effects are outstanding and best experience with a good set of headphones. There are all sorts of subtle sounds and layered effects going on that really bring the environments and the action to life. Magical effects are some of the more inventive sounds in the game.
The voice work is not only appreciated given the volumes of text I had to read last year, the quality is very good. Almost every key character in the game is now voiced by an actor that delivers the dialogue with appropriate style and quality, making for a very cinematic experience.
Despite the single-player campaign actually being longer than the first game, you no longer have the freedom to pick and choose your path through the game, so it might actually seem like a shorter game in some ways. It certainly takes away the incentive to replay the adventure, especially with the loss of the random dungeon generator. Expect about a 25-30 hour adventure, but with some balancing issues, you might find the second half of the game far from challenging.
The multiplayer component will certainly help extend the life of this title and there always seems to be at least a few people playing anytime I checked in. The lack of in-game chatting hurts the cooperative nature of some modes, but who really reads those chat boxes anyway? There is enough online content to keep you playing for at least another month.
Untold Legends: The Warrior’s Code tried to add several new elements to the existing formula. While most of those failed, at least the core game was strong enough to survive on its own merit. The Attack of Opportunity are so botched that you won’t even bother with them and the Changeling, while cool in concept, is not integrated or balanced, so that your primary character will quickly outclass the beast form.
In the end it will be the improved combat, enhanced combos, richer and more dynamic story, cutscenes, and spoken dialogue that will appeal to the traditional RPG gamer. I still thing RPG’s are best left to the big consoles, but if you need to take your role-playing on the road, then check out The Warrior’s Code.