Hack, slash, slaughter, slay. In this ever-changing world, if there is one thing you can rely on it is an endless stream of sword-wielding arcade fantasies. Unreal is one such outing, but with the promise of eight lvels, both 2D and 3D graphics and interactive music it could be a cut above your average hack-em-up.
First, though, the plot. Your name is Artaban, and you live in peace with your beloved, Isolde, your people and a friendly copper dragon called Dracus. Then one day Isolde is captured by the Master of Darkness, Polymorph, and whisked off to his castle lair, where he insists that she marries him. News of the wedding gets out, Dracus is horrified, tells Artabun, and the two zoom off to rescue the fair maiden.
The game's eight levels divide into three 2D ones and five 3D ones. Now the promise of 3D action sounds good and, indeed, the first level is one of the 3D ones. It is basically a prehistoric Afterburner, with the dragon sprite flying into a screen populated by trees, prehistoric monsters and rock outcrops, which sap your shield's energy, and power-up crystals, which give you extra weapons or short-term invulnerability.
Play for a minute and you will think even the first level is impossible: play for ten and you will be defeating it every time with your joystick on autofire and your feet up.
Level Two is where it starts to get interesting. It might ony be 2D but it is inifintely better than Level One. Here you embark on a sideways-scrolling hack-em-up with lots of puzzles to sort out and some truly dazzling graphics. The same general principle applies - you have a shield which absorbs hits for just so long. When its energy gets to zero you are dead and it is game over time again.
UbiSoft have wisely built in a Save Game option, but laoding a game actually dumps you into a special training mode where you can progress through the game but do not actually amass any points. The very same training mode is offered when you lose your one and only life, so you can get to see what you have missed, but if you want to properly complete the game, you have to do it all in one sitting. Grrr...
After Level Two it is back to a 3D dragon-borne blast and then another 2D plod, this time through an arctic wasteland. Then it is back to the dragon... and so on. If it is all starting to sound a bit thin, it is made up for the sheer size of the thing and the range of opponents and puzzles along the way.
GRAPHICS AND SOUND
In the dragon-borne stages the graphics are not good, but in the hacking stages they are frequently stunning. The attacking beasties are not always as convincingly-animated as they might be, but the landscape detail and effects are very good. The sound is a real mixed bag. Owners of half-meg machines just get a series of soundtracks which, apart from a rather nice title tune, are a cross between Jean Michel Jarre on a bad day and Stock Aitken Waterman on a worse one. If you have a 1Mb machine, though you get sound effects too. On the dragons stages these are naff, on the hacking stages they are quite superb.
It is all a bit frustrating, what with tedious dragon-piloting to get through and only one life between you and a complete restart, but the graphics, sound effects (if you have got the hardware) and puzzles on the hacking stages will keep you playing. You will rescue Isolde even if it takes you every night for a month (and probably will).
You do not often get a game showing such a variety of standards in its different sections. The 3D dragon-flying parts make up five of the eight stages, but about one per cent of the game's fun factor. The real game is in the hack-em-up stages, but even here it takes a 1Mb machine to handle the sound effects. Players with more between their ears than the average psychotic will find the puzzles a welcome relief from the charnel-house style of most hack-em-ups.
All in all, a game of two halves. The dragon stages are graphically grim, tedious and undemanding. The hacking stages are often graphically breathtaking, challenging and addictive. This is one you will both love and hate.