Snowblind Studios has had a decent run of success on the PlayStation 2. Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance was a surprise hit, drawing influence from games like Blizzard's Diablo series and Midway's Gauntlet games and bringing the so-called "hack"tion RPG to the masses. Sony Online Entertainment then contracted Snowblind to create a similar game and set it in the popular EverQuest universe, and Champions of Norrath was born. Norrath took the "hack"tion RPG to new heights by adding randomized dungeon layouts, random weapons, and online play. Unfortunately, Norrath was also plagued by bugs, such as game freezes, improper audio synchronization, and late draw-in, which were attributed to the dual-layered DVD media that the game used. While Norrath was still the best game of its type, there were some issues that needed fixing for the sequel.
A year after Norrath was released, the sequel—Champions: Return to Arms—is now available. In many ways, Return to Arms is a classic definition of "more of the same". The same graphics engine that Snowblind pioneered back in 2001 for Dark Alliance is present here, and there are still hundreds of randomized weapons, pieces of armor, and items to be found or purchased. Some of the locales that players will visit over the course of their 20-hour adventure are actually repeats from Norrath.
Thankfully, there is a fair amount of new material in Return to Arms that differentiate it from its predecessor. There are two new character classes to choose from: a berserker and a shaman. The berserker is a variation on the barbarian character and emphasizes melee combat, while the shaman is more magic-oriented. The story takes place across several different planes of existence, and therefore transports the players to new lands and pitting them against new enemies. For each plane, there's also a medal stage that becomes available once the primary mission for that stage is completed. The medal stages vary in terms of objectives. One medal stage challenges players to take out four bosses while using no more than four health potions, while another plays out like Pac-Man as players must guide their characters through a maze and squish frogs while avoiding patrolling kobolds. Once these medal stages are completed, an extra bonus level becomes available for play, granting players an additional opportunity to slay monsters, gain experience, and collect tons of treasure. These bonus levels are also available for play online, which is a nice touch.
The story picks up where Norrath ends. The great god Innoruuk has been slain (probably by you last year) and a new evil threatens the planes of existence. There are two distinct paths for players to follow: one is the path of good, and the other is the path of evil. This choice is made pretty early in the campaign and cannot be changed once it's made. The story basically centers around finding the shards of Innoruuk for either good or evil purposes. Unfortunately, neither of the storylines is very interesting and the writing seems rather shallow. After a while, you'll probably just skip over the dialogue and get to more monster slaying. It's surprising that an RPG like this has such a weak story, as stories are usually what drive RPG players to proceed.
At its heart, though, Return to Arms plays just like its predecessors. For those players who enjoy these kinds of games, this isn't a bad thing. Players will battle through thousands of various monsters and obstacles while completing missions and gaining treasure and experience. There are a few rudimentary puzzles thrown in here and there to keep the game from being completely mindless, but otherwise, hack ‘n slash action rules the day.
It's worth noting that Return to Arms is considerably more difficult than its predecessor. It's possible to be killed a lot very early on by several more-powerful monsters that can smite characters in as few as two hits. There is an option to import a character from Champions of Norrath, if you still have the memory card save from that game, but that may make the first two difficulty levels a bit too easy. Another area of difficulty, however inconsistent, lies in the multitude of boss and miniboss battles that the game throws at you. Some bosses are ridiculously easy to defeat—even late in the game—while others are frustratingly difficult as they can kill players in one hit. This difficulty curve is uneven and ultimately takes some enjoyment out of the game. When the final boss is easier than a few of the bosses close to the mid-point of the game, there's a problem. Minibosses are no different, but the option to use a gate scroll comes in handy in these situations as players can literally take a temporary leave from a poor battle and retreat to their home plane to rest up before resuming. It's a cheap tactic, but extremely effective.
Aside from the bonus stages, Return to Arms bears some possible replay value due to its tiered difficulty settings and its online play. It's possible to complete the game and start a new one, using the same character and bumping the difficulty up one level. Higher difficulties include more powerful items, more gold, and more (and tougher) enemies to defeat. Players can also go online and play with (or against) other players, which can certainly add to the overall experience. There's also an Arena mode for players that just want to kill monsters without having to worry about missions or storyline. It's not the deepest mode of play around, but it is mindless fun and setting personal records is satisfying.
Visually, Return to Arms is stunningly like Champions of Norrath. While the locations are different, they look like you'd expect them to look. There's a variety of different backdrops, such as forests, tombs, winter-laden lands, and more. There are three selectable levels of zoom for the camera, and at the closest setting, there's a fair amount of detail to be seen. Individual slashes on dead creatures, markings on floors, heat distortion from flames, and more all look pretty impressive… but we've seen them all before. There are still some times where the normally consistent frame rate dips way down for no apparent reason, and there are still issues with draw in during disc access every so often. In the inventory and shop screens, it's very likely that you'll see screen jumps and jitters. These kinds of bugs are really inexcusable at this stage of the PlayStation 2's life span.
The game's sound is a mixed bag. The voice acting isn't quite as good as in Champions of Norrath – there's not a lot of emotion conveyed in the dialogue and it sounds mostly flat and uninspired, even with veteran voiceover talent like Vanessa Marshall doing the honors. The sound effects are clean, although they're mostly recycled from the previous game. The music is really quite good, but there isn't enough of it and it loops far too much. It's also puzzling as to why Snowblind still hasn't implemented Dolby Pro-Logic II support, as it would be most beneficial to hear approaching monsters when they come up behind you.
Personally, I had fun with Return to Arms, despite its flaws… until the end. I won't spoil anything, but after 20 hours, one would expect more than the anticlimax at the end of the journey. As a fan of these types of games, I would ordinarily recommend Return to Arms without hesitation to fans of the genre; however, for the $50 price tag, I can't do that. The additions to the existing game that Champions of Norrath began don't justify paying full price, and the flaws in the game seal the deal. It's definitely worth a rental, if only for a weekend, to get your fill of "hack"tion, but you'll find that when it's over, you'll be glad you're taking it back to the rental store and not having it sit on your shelf collecting dust.