Rick Ajax is a comic-book tough guy who is constantly forced to fight for the entertainment of readers at the whim of his creator, the Maker. He's pretty sick and tired of it, and if you play Unbound Saga, you'll understand why. Originally released on the PSP last year, this shallow and tiresome fighting game has now made its way onto Xbox Live, giving you a great opportunity to ignore it all over again.
In Unbound Saga, you have the interminable task of guiding the lumbering Rick through 10 stages of boring, mindless, side-scrolling beat-'em-up combat as he journeys to give the Maker a piece of his mind and break free of his pencil-and-ink chains. Eventually, Rick is joined by former professional damsel-in-distress Lori Machete whom he suspects of being tossed into his life as part of a crossover with another comic book. This core concept of self-aware comic-book heroes has potential, but Unbound Saga doesn't do anything interesting with it. The story is unfocused and features characters that appear and disappear for no apparent reason, as well as levels that end abruptly without any sense of pacing or climax. The action ostensibly takes place on the pages of a comic book; you progress from one panel to the next and, when the camera pulls way out, you can see the edges of surrounding panels. But the visuals only make a halfhearted attempt to sell this concept; there's never any expository text at the top of a panel, and speech bubbles appear only alongside pop-up character portraits.
As Rick, you can kick and punch your enemies into submission, as well as whack them with items you pick up, such as bottles and benches. However, Rick is so slow and his enemies so stupid that there's no enjoyment to be gleaned from any of this combat. Once Lori shows up, you can switch between the two characters at any time. She's faster and more agile than Rick, but the action is so fundamentally weak that it isn't much more enjoyable to play as Lori. Often, just when you think you've finished a panel and are ready to move one merciful step closer to completion, the Maker's hand will pop into the frame and quickly sketch a new group of mindless thugs for you to clobber. So, by the time you reach the end of this excruciating journey, you'll be longing to clobber the Maker yourself for putting you through this tedium. Unfortunately, the final confrontation is as anticlimactic and unsatisfying as everything else about Unbound Saga. Along the way, you'll be confronted by punks, werewolves, hobos, and commandos, but despite the differences in their outward appearances, there's no real variety to the way your enemies fight. Lori actually refers to the constant stream of goons and thugs as the "Mindless Ones," and they sure do live up to their name. Even bosses are only differentiated from the other fist fodder by an energy bar at the bottom of the screen.
Fighting is a drag; it looks clumsy and feels clunky. And in addition to being simple and repetitive, the brawling lacks any sense of impact. Despite the visual representation of such big comic-book sound effects as WHAM, BLAM, and SMACK every time you hit an enemy, nothing about your attacks feels hard hitting or satisfying. As you progress, you earn skill points that let you unlock new combos and abilities for Rick and Lori, but the addition of a few new moves to your repertoire isn't nearly enough to make this clunky combat compelling. Unbound Saga tries to give you an incentive to play through the campaign multiple times by letting you carry over moves you've unlocked from one game to the next, but it's hard to imagine feeling compelled to finish the game even once.
The visuals in Unbound Saga are ordinary and inconsistent. Some of the background environments are interesting, especially those in the dingy, run-down city of Toxopolis, but the character models and objects in the foreground lack the detail to match and look out of place as a result. The cutscenes are the game's high point and feature gorgeous comic-book artwork. The voice actors do a fine job, but otherwise, the sound is disappointing. The harsh, grating music might suit the ruined urban landscape of Toxopolis, but it repeats too often, and the sounds of combat lack the necessary oomph to match the comic-book onomatopoeias onscreen.
This release of Unbound Saga adds local and online multiplayer, but while sharing the experience with a friend makes the drudgery a bit more tolerable, it doesn't make it fun. No matter what you're looking for, there's a game available on XBLA that does it much better than Unbound Saga. Comic Jumper makes much smarter, funnier use of a comic-book setting, and such hard-hitting classics as Final Fight and Streets of Rage 2 have satisfying combat and enemies that attack with variety and personality. Unbound Saga isn't in the same league. With these much better games and more like them readily available for download, there's no reason for anyone to waste time with this boring brawler.