(PS Vita Review) Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy

Developer: Experience Inc.
Publisher: NIS America
Genre: Role-Playing Game / Dungeon Crawler
Players: 1
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 4 = Below Average

Near-future Tokyo is under assault by an army of vicious mutants and plagued by bizarre phenomena. The creatures, known as Variants, are feasting on the populace and overwhelming traditional law enforcement agencies. As word spreads that a subversive political group is possibly behind the strange events and Variant hordes, Hinowa Academy’s renowned Xth Squad is brought in to save the city.

Battling the array of deadly creatures requires more than bravado, and to match their ferocious abilities, players will call upon the blood of heroes. Members of the Xth Squad are gifted teenagers who are able to tap into and absorb the powers of historical and mythological beings through Blood Codes. The infused blood grants the receiver special abilities, allowing them to craft weapons capable of killing Variants and to access special skills. Heroes serve the role of classes, with each bestowing certain powers and stat boosts depending on their associated type, such as Monk, Priest, Warrior, etc. For example, a character can receive additional points in Strength, Physical, and Spirit when leveling by using the blood of knight Jeanne d’Arc, or extra Wisdom, Speed, and Spirit through the blood of priest Florence Nightingale. Of particular note is the art used for the heroes, which is head and shoulders above the rest of the game, and makes the inclusion of the fabled blood sources nothing if not an attractive alternative to the traditional job system.

Putting an end to the Variants’ reign of terror will require venturing into the various abysses that have begun to appear in locations around the city. Players unlock new areas as story missions become available, and will find themselves frequently returning to previously visited areas by accepting oft-recurring side missions. These nether realms aren’t as alien as they might sound and frequently take the look of the locations that they are set in, including an abandoned high rise, a hospital-style haunted house, and various sewers. But things aren’t quite what they appear, as each is filled with numerous traps designed to stop intruders. As in developer Experience Inc.’s other dungeon crawler for PS Vita, Demon Gaze, dungeons are dotted with illusory walls, one-way doors, and booby-trapped tiles that shock, spin the party, and negate magic. A few items help to ease navigational woes by revealing nearby areas, displaying the party’s location in maps that block out their locator, and allowing the party a quick escape. But even with these aides, the abysses can be dangerous, confusing places.

Unfortunately, they can also be drab and dull places. The first portion of the game is dominated by large, bland dungeons that have little detail or color. The result is hours upon hours of some of the most unimaginative, thematically repetitive locations possible, such as grey, featureless buildings, sewers, and more sewers. A few areas have a splash of color, such as the Babyl Sphere, an alternate dimension that stands out with its heavy use of purple and red; however, as with the abysses, the wall textures are bland and repeated endlessly. Despite being monster-filled labyrinths of doom, the locations fail to excite, instill fear, or draw players in. The layouts also frustrate, with numerous spiraling halls, dead ends, and hallways split into five or six rooms. The chance of encountering enemies increases when entering a room, which makes those multi-room halls a nuisance. In fact, I counted 50 doors in a single area of a nine-area dungeon. Encounter rate aside, the constant starting and stopping from entering and exiting so many rooms makes exploration feel very stilted.

And of course, said exploration is done in the midst of frequent battles. Enemies are randomly encountered in the abyss, and unless players are given an option to leave or observe those caught unawares, the squad will have to fight them via a turn-based combat system. There are several enemy types, though they are largely palette swapped variations of fairly simple designs, such as floating crystals, flying drones, rabbits, robots, and mutants. The second half of the game adds more types, including floating bloodied hospital beds and jellyfish-like creatures: nothing terribly exciting but also not atypical of the genre. They are primarily separated by type, which is logged in the in-game squad handbook. Weapons can be affixed with plug-ins to target specific types, and Operation Abyss is one of those games where weapon maintenance is crucial if the player is to stand a chance. Not only can enemies take punishing blows from powerful but unaffixed weapons, it’s also incredibly demoralizing to have a low-level grunt brush aside a blow from a—subtly named—Death Axe.

Paradoxically, fighting enemies leads to having to fight tougher enemies. A six-level meter, the Encounter Gauge, increases as the squad engages in combat. Each level attained increases the enemy’s strength, though they also award more experience and drop better gear. It’s easy to max out the gauge, and once it is, encounters can get difficult very quickly. That is especially true because, also like Demon Gaze, there are some harsh difficulty spikes, with some encounters being tougher than boss battles. The gauge is a persistent menace, as it is decreased only by defeating a Wanted Variant or repeatedly running away from combat. Given that Wanted Variants aren’t always accessible, players have to frequently flee from battle in order to be able to progress through newer areas tenable, which is an odd approach. On the plus side, combat gives the squad a boost as well through the Unity Gauge. The gauge allows access to strong abilities and spells, whether that’s an all-out assault by every member or increased magic effects, and the more the squad initiates unity abilities, the larger the gauge grows. The strength and the length of the gauge is also determined by the characters’ alignments, but my squad having a mixture of good, neutral, and evil characters didn’t seem to have a noticeable impact on the gauge’s usefulness. As much as I enjoy layered mechanics, combat felt lacking, as there is a sense of disconnect between the characters attacking and enemies being hit. A battle log keeps track of the stats, but the entire process is so minimally animated and coherent that it never serves as a strong gameplay hook. Part of that lack of coherency is due to the player being unable to manually target enemies, and the AI’s inability to formulate a sensible strategy, which leads to pure chaos with the squad seeming to pick their targets at random.

The missions are about as lively as the abysses themselves. And although some require a little investigative work, which could have provided the game with a unique element, it’s mere window dressing. Each area of the city has a general location where players can contact anyone nearby, which results in them talking to locals about any strange events when on an assignment, or engaging in chit chat when out and about. If the character is given a lead, the group will need to either return to headquarters to pass along the new information or proceed directly to that area’s abyss to further the storyline. There is no actual question-and-answer session between the squad and bystanders, only them relaying what they’ve seen or heard and the player moving along. Some conversations allow for one of two responses to be given, but this didn’t affect the story in any noticeable way. Most assignments boil down to tracking something down within the abyss to kill, gather intel, or attain, with very little interesting to speak of.

Unlike most role-playing games, and dungeon crawlers in particular, players will want to stick strictly to the missions and not grind for experience. Areas can be explored without working on a specific mission, but in doing so, players only reach the level cap sooner. As Operation Abyss is actually two older games of the Generation Xth series, Code Hazard and Code Breaker, the player is capped at level 15 until they complete the first semester and unlock the next plot line. Combining two games into one seems like a hell of a value—that is, until it’s made clear that there has been minimal effort to properly bridge the titles. Instead, Experience Inc. took the shortest route and simply locked the player to a level-15 cap until they finish the first game. Caps are rarely welcomed by players, but having one towards the end of a game makes some sense, as is also the case here, but having one in the middle makes none. In effect, the cap kills any momentum and makes the interim feel like busywork. Minimizing the hamster-wheel effect of playing without progressing requires taking the side missions as they come before continuing with the story and refraining from replaying any of them, much less grinding.

In addition to a more subtle approach to merging the games together, Operation Abyss would have greatly benefited from a general overhaul. The menu system is an absolute mess, with information squeezed into tightly packed panes and actions requiring multiple steps. The increased use of infographics over the years, particularly in role-playing games, have demonstrated that a lot of information can be presented clearly and concisely without overwhelming the player, and this type of sensible approach is sorely missed here. It also doesn’t help that the game does a very poor job explaining its various systems. A lackluster tutorial is supplemented by an anemic manual and a sprawling in-game tome that is jam-packed with everything else, and which must be constantly consulted because so much is presented with little explanation. Streamlining would have improved everything across the board, especially crafting, which is broken out over a ridiculous amount of screens, menus, and items. There are enhancers, shafts, junk parts, plug-ins, source codes, and numerous other materials to sort out, and most of these are accessible in separate menus.

So much of the game makes things needlessly difficult for the player. Combat is dragged out as the AI frequently chooses the worst enemy, leaving those near death to attack the next turn. Locked doors are re-locked, while used keys are lost. The squad must be manually reformed after characters are resuscitated, regardless of set formations. And even though there are six characters in a party, the game’s design essentially locks out three of those positions. The ability to float over tiles is vital to completing several areas, so a Wizard will be needed for their “enfloat” spell. Academics are also an absolute must, thanks to their ability to summon a return gate to leave a dungeon, unlock doors, identify mysterious items, and safely gain access to dropped loot, as it is almost always booby-trapped (a process which can also requires going through several menus). Healers are also needed, especially in the beginning, otherwise progress would grind to a halt. As such, three out of the six squad slots are spoken for, which leaves little room for experimentation There are items that can do all of these things, but that money is needed to buy new weapons, armor, and items. Money is also required for resting, which allows characters to level and spell casters to replenish their cast stock. Both of these activities, along with reviving fallen squadmates, have scaling costs that increase alongside the characters’ levels. Grinding can add a lot of coin to the coffers, but again, that will only lead to hitting the cap sooner.

One of the biggest missed opportunities involves the ability to switch Blood Codes. It definitely sounds cool, swapping from one famous hero’s blood to another. After all, who wouldn’t want to toss in some of Genghis Khan’s blood into the mix? But it’s actually pointless. Despite subskills being a fairly common feature within the genre, each blood has its own level and no skills carry over. The stat bonuses, the only other benefit, come into play once the current blood code has surpassed that character’s highest-level one. That’s a lot of time for a handful of extra points.

A great story could’ve at least propelled things forward when the mechanics and pacing started to falter, but there isn’t one. The first half putters along after a decent beginning, as does the second half. The second semester actually has a more intriguing premise involving a series of spatial shifts that cause people and things to disappear, but there is no follow-through on the initial eerie imagery. The handful of characters at the academy that the player can talk to are stand-ins to move the story along, while the player and the party remain mum. This absence of personality is keenly felt once a level cap kicks in, as that means there is zero character development: in fact, there is no growth of any kind, in personality, relationships, ability, or stats. Most of my complaints should have been addressed when the games were being combined for re-release, which presented the perfect opportunity to fix lingering progression, interface, and mechanic issues. Instead, the games were cobbled together with little done to update its many archaic and unrefined elements. There might have been a good reason for it, be it budgetary or scheduling, but the end result is a three-part series whose first two chapters leave a poor impression.

Despite the potential for its sci-fi-inspired storyline to be a refreshing take on the genre, Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy disappoints with an opaque interface, middling combat, and poor pacing. I haven’t been this let down with a role-playing game since Mind Zero. Both of these seem very much alike, actually: showing a lot of promise in the beginning but becoming increasingly tedious as time goes on. Diehard dungeon-crawler fans might find something to like, but everyone else will find their time and money better spent elsewhere.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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