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Sometimes, it really is a young man’s game

Courtesy of Francisco Tellez de Meneses

It’s only natural that our tastes change as we get older. And these changes bring with them jarring moments when we realize the people we were 10 or 20 years ago were very, very different from who we are now.

Usually we think of these moments in terms of music, film, or TV, but they can happen with video games, too. I was struck by one recently with “Unepic,” a new sidescrolling action role-playing game for Windows.

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The plot: You’re a dude playing “Dungeons & Dragons” with some friends. You go to the bathroom, get lost in the dark, and find yourself in a menacing medieval castle. Convinced your friends dosed your drink with a hallucinogen, you forge ahead to figure out what your quest is and how to get out of the castle.

“Unepic” is the work of Francisco Téllez de Meneses, a Barcelonan game developer, and it’s an impressive feat for a one-man team (on his website, he does list a bunch of other people who helped with things like music and translation — the game’s available in a shocking number of languages given its small footprint — but it’s clear that the core elements of the game came from Meneses himself). There’s a lot here: The castle is a sprawling place with all sorts of environments, traps, and loot to acquire.

The game clearly has some roots in the “Castlevania” and “Metroid” sidescrollers from console generations past (present-day games of this genre are often described with the portmanteau “Metroidvania”). Like them, there’s a focus on slowly unlocking various doors and passages to gain access to more of game world, and to finding the increasingly powerful items in newly opened wings. The process is quite satisfying overall.

There’s story and dialogue in “Unepic,” and while the voice acting is solid, the writing relies too much on juvenile humor and the weird nonchalance of a main character who does, after all, think he’s in the midst of an extended, vivid hallucination. I know it doesn’t sound like a valid complaint to describe a video-game character’s reactions as unrealistic, but something just doesn’t feel true to life — even in a fantasy setting. And he doesn’t come across as particularly sympathetic, either.

Back to the changing-tastes thing: After a while, “Unepic,” distressingly, started to make me feel old. I played on the second highest of the four difficulty levels, and quickly realized that this is a game that throws a lot of ways to die at you — one second I’d be fine, self-satisfied after clearing a room of low-level baddies, and the next moment a poisonous snake would bite me twice in quick succession, inflicting a double-poison penalty, and my health would drop to zero before I could even react.

A younger, more persistent Jesse would have relished the challenge of figuring this out. Present-day Jesse got tired of dying over and over again and grew frustrated.

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A younger, more persistent Jesse would have relished the challenge of figuring this out, of slowly and satisfyingly building up my character to the point where he could laugh at those puny snakes. Present-day Jesse got tired of dying over and over again and grew frustrated, not to mention distracted by the siren songs of e-mail and Twitter. Maybe it’s a matter of my old gaming muscles atrophying; there are so many shorter, more digestible games out there these days.

None of this should deter the seasoned gamer, though. If you’ve got some time to sink into it and an old-school appreciation for tough, involving video games — or if you’re less stubborn than I am and willing to play on a lower difficulty level — “Unepic” is worth checking out.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.
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