At $15 this unapologetically average brawler teeters on the verge of being too expensive for what it offers.

User Rating: 7 | Unbound Saga PSP
GameObserver [url=http://www.gameobserver.com/features/inside/all-platforms/by-the-numbers-analysis-of-2007-2008-games-77/]reported a few months ago[/url] that Beat 'em Ups were one of the few genres that saw a decrease in titles last year -- it seems developers have run out of ideas and players are tired of going through the same motions in a different wrapper. Interestingly enough, Unbound Saga somewhat pokes fun at that, be it willingly or otherwise, by having its main character trying to get out of a comic book that forces him to constantly pound on various hobos and junkies for the stupidest of reasons.

As classic Beat 'em Ups go this one is a typical brawler with a few flaws but it has enough variety to make it a worthwhile rental. Why a rental, considering it's a PSN game? Because it's short, mindless and thin on gameplay and probably won't get more than a couple of hours of your attention. So buyer beware: returning the title should be an option, even though it is not. If you have a few hours to kill on a trip, it might be a good purchase if you approach the game with low expectations.

RABBITS WITH MOLOTOVS

The main thing that sets this brawler apart is its self-awareness, because, to be quite frank, everything here has indeed been done before. The game almost feels like a collection of stereotypes looking to justify its existence by making fun of teenage comic book fantasies.

Our hero, Rick, who has about as much brains as your typical jellyfish (think Sin City's Marv, both in acumen and look), somehow managed to figure out he exists in some kind of comic book short on ideas. Your main character starts the story by telling us about "The Maker" and that he or she has been pitting him against various enemies. At night, Rick cracks skulls at a local club as a bouncer. During the day… well, we never get to that part, but we assume it also involves vital parts breaking (and for some reason, livers being eaten). Rick is quickly entangled in a brawl that eventually introduces us to Lori, our hero's girlfriend, who in all honesty is too hot for decency -- clearly The Maker is a horny teenage male.

The two lovebirds decide to leave Toxopolis, the last city on Earth. As you'd know it, the last inhabited urban center on the planet is a polluted, violent mess. It looks like something my Scottish neighbor regular paints (read: brags) Glasgow of being. In the process our heroes engage in fights one small level after another with the same amount of depth and reasoning found in your average Aksys street fighting game. Dialog bubbles pop up before each fight with our characters spouting a funny and/or witty retort to whichever group of thugs they are about to stump their skulls in the ground.

BUGS BUNNY SHOULD SUE

Vogster Entertainment does a decent job setting up all 10 boxy levels with the fewest amount of dialog, which is a welcome change, for most Beat 'em Ups have no dialog at all. In the end, the humor is Zen-like funny and the whole thing conveys rather well as an animated comic. Interjections pepper the stages creating a cheesy 70s Batman feel.

Enemies are literally drawn into the levels by a giant hand holding a pencil. At first, the hand looks like it will do something original with the concept, like scribbling in objects for the characters to use or change the surroundings to make our lives harder (or easier), but soon we realize the gimmick only serves to spawn enemies and block the player's view of the action. It also serves to remind us of this omnipresent Maker in case you managed to forget that fact between the last cutscene, which presents a comic book-style slideshow of the story with competent voice acting.

Both characters are at our disposal almost from the onset, giving players polar opposites in terms of gameplay. Rick is a slow, dimwitted, colossal 8-foot monster while Lori is a smart, sexy ninja archetype. Switching between them is done by pressing the Select button. AI is decent enough, though in a couple of levels the computer-controlled character will sometimes needlessly set off traps and get into trouble. With such a setup, Unbound Saga was obviously made to be played with a friend. Unfortunately, someone out there decided NOT to include co-op mode (probably a relative of Rick).

YOU'LL ENJOY EXPLOITING LORI'S LEGS

Fighting mechanics have players stringing simple combos with three rudimentary actions: punch, kick and block. Both characters also have unique specialties. Rick can pick up objects and either swing or throw them, while Lori can do jump kicks. Furthermore, Rick can pick up enemies and perform various slams while Lori has a variety of Shadow moves at her disposal, some of which can be executed while standing in special blue spots.

A skills menu lets players upgrade various aspects of their characters by spending rare coins picked up during the Story campaign. For added depth, Talent and Power features let players upgrade things like health, power, speed, resistance, new combos, and in the case of Lori, new moves like Venom Cloud, Invisibility, Shadow Fighter, Instant Kill and Mind Control.

It will take a few Story playthroughs to get all the character upgrades, but after the first hour players will realize that Lori clearly has more depth and is more effective. Like many Beat 'em Ups before it, the game has a set of moves that outperform the rest, and it so happens Lori's jump kicks are "it" here. The whole game can be finished with them alone. Rick merely acts as a diversion while Lori picks off opponents one by one. Granted, the game can be played in various ways, but high-heeling new orifices in my opponents worked too well for me.

PICK UP YOUR TRASH, RICK

Fighting is the usual mess we've come to expect from such games. Enemies keep spawning until an arrow tells us to move on with boss fights interspersing the carnage. To make things more interesting, a handful of levels ask players to flip switches or break objects to keep moving. Unbound Saga runs on a 3D engine, something the game occasionally takes advantage of by varying view angles.

The physics engine is a bit wonky at times but serves the premise well. Levels are loaded with breakable objects that can be used as weapons, even their fragments. This gives action a more organic feel, but unfortunately colliding with fragments can slow players down. Objects also tend to react unnaturally to the environment, but as a whole most of the varied junk (bottles, stop signs, paint buckets, TVs, futons, dumbbells, etc.) in each level can be put to good use while playing as Rick, and it serves to add more realism to the levels.

Movement feels stiff and unresponsive for the amount of enemies needing a thrashing. Your characters will often not connect with slightly unaligned targets or they may swing through them when too close. Speed is also an issue. Lori, the faster of the two, can upgrade her agility but even at max speed she doesn't seem to have legs (Rick, on the other hand, needs to lay off the angel dust). It's sad that games as old as Final Fight 3 have more polished action. Play mechanics in Unbound Saga are decent but not spectacular.

SUMMARY

For $15 Unbound Saga is a semi-decent title. It's a bit short but offers enough upgrades to keep players fisticuffing (and mudhole stomping, and body slamming, and Venom Cloud gassing) for more than one playthrough. Gameplay could have used more polish but it doesn't kill the experience. The game's two main characters have an innocent charm to them. The story is stupid fun and conveys the whole comic book feel rather nicely. Sadly, not including cooperative mode is a head-slamming-against-coffee-table-too-often- as-a-kid shame. If you live in a magical universe where you can rent PSN games, do so. Otherwise, borrow it from a friend.


GRAPHICS
Stiff animation and some strange ragdoll effects, but levels have a fair amount of details (destructible objects) and 3D graphics give players a variety of perspectives to break monotony. Nice comic book art and cutscenes. Lori is flippin' hot (did not affect score).


GAMEPLAY
With stiff animation comes stiff gameplay. Characters don't seem to move fast enough or hit their targets when you want them to. Loads of breakable objects handled semi-competently by the physics engine. Character move upgrades are cool. As usual, includes gameplay unbalances.


PRODUCTION
The comic book feel is adequately presented in the small, boxy levels. The story, though stupid and unoriginal, has enough sweetness and innocence you'll forget you're racking up a higher body count than Rambo's evil twin. Not enough extras.


SOUND
Some hilarious lines and great voice acting from both protagonists. Too bad enemies are only capable of discharging death-grunts. Noisy street music litters the levels with an occasional techno tune.


LASTING APPEAL
With a 3-5 hours Story mode the game should be called Unbound Errand, not Saga. Fire the genius who decided not to include co-op mode, or hit him upside the head with a coffee table for good measure. It will take a couple of playthroughs to get all the upgrades.

OVERALL SCORE 70

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