I like hack-and-slash games just as much as the next guy, maybe even more so. It's a very simple, straightforward genre that hasn't advanced very much since its inception. The basic rules and formula were set up long ago, and mostly hold true to this day because there's something very compelling about constantly battling off hordes of advancing monsters while finding new, shiny pieces of armor among the entrails. Still, despite the lack of sophistication and basic structure necessary to create a game in this genre, Sony Online's PSP entry Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade is a perfect example of how even the most basic formula can be royally screwed up.
Basically, Untold Legends is the PS2's Champions of Norrath without the EverQuest connection and downsized to fit the new PlayStation Portable. Players can select one of four classes (I picked the busty Alchemist), tweak a few options like skin tone and hairstyle, and then sally forth into randomly generated dungeons using a mostly top-down view. Naturally, the goal is to kill everything that moves, pick up gold and items along the way, and repeat.
The game started smoothly, and I was initially impressed. Everything was straightforward and easy to understand, and I liked that the developers included a lot of hints and guidelines to make sure that everything moved along at a steady pace. For example, the questlog section always told me exactly where I needed to go. Additionally, there are lots of little niceties added, such as seeing at a glance what kind of armor you can or cannot wear by the color of the text describing it.
I especially liked the fact that I could save at any time, and could also warp back to the main hub town at will, without needing to worry about keeping a scroll or other item on hand to do so. This kind of streamlined, painless interface is perfect for a handheld, and made Untold Legends very easy to get into.
After about an hour or two though, I found myself getting bored. Really, really bored. The game progresses along a course of events as flat as the horizon. Once I got comfy with the basic play system, I plowed through dungeon after dungeon without any real sense of excitement or advancement. After the first few levels, there isn't anything new left to see, and the rest is all repetition.
The storyline was extremely boring; something about a dark menace from somewhere bringing terror to so-and-so city, but it was hard to care about and even harder to keep in my active memory. Like others in the same genre, plot really has no impact on gameplay whatsoever.
However, what really kills Untold Legends is that the usual level-up/power-up addiction associated with collecting new weapons and learning new spells is not in effect. Within a short time, I had seen most of the (very few) armor types and weapon types, with each new find being just a color-swap or plus-one variation on things I had already gotten before. I eventually got to the point where I didn't even bother to open chests or pick up armor from monsters because I knew I wasn't going to get anything more exciting than what I already had.
Lacking as much spice as the armor and weapons, the dungeons all began to blend together and put me to sleep, too. Only very occasionally were there areas with some personality or graphical touches to pique my interest. There's a desert, some dark caves, some marble crypts…the same old stuff that's been seen before in every other hack-and-slash, with little to differentiate it. The only thing more vanilla would be a pint of hand-packed from Baskin-Robbins.
Even worse, the randomly-generated nature of the levels meant there was no incentive to search and explore. The haphazard layout of areas never made much sense, on top of the fact that I knew I wasn't going to discover any good items, each dungeon map is completely visible at the start of the level—so it's possible to skip all nonessential corners and head straight for the boss.
The final nail in the coffin was that the game consistently forced me to backtrack and go through levels I had already covered multiple times. Instead of giving me a warp spell or just making the quests more straightforward, Sony Online thought it was a good idea to make me trek through three of four dungeons in a row to simply get to the dungeon where I needed to be. After fulfilling the quest it was easy enough to return to town, but immediately afterwards they would send me on another long hike through miles and miles of back country. It was unnecessary, served no purpose other than to bloat the playtime, and essentially pissed me off so much that I lost what little respect I had for it.
Untold Legends might be a good launch title for portable players who have never tried games in the hack-and-slash genre before, but there won't be anything rewarding or enjoyable about it for experienced gamers. It was so weak that I wanted to put it down and do something else several times, but I kept going since it was all I had to get me through two six-hour flights. Once I landed, I had no trouble putting it down without finishing it and then forgetting all about it. Sony Online is really out of touch with what makes this kind of game good. It adds nothing to the genre that hasn't already been done before—and actually gets a lot of it wrong. I'm never leaving my copy of Lumines at home again.