If you're old enough, you remember some of the earliest role-playing games, where you faced your enemies in turn-based, first-person encounters. Dragon Warrior and Phantasy Star were like that and developer Experience, Inc. ( Demon Gaze ) has resurrected the old tradition with Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy and tossed in some seriously dark anime imagery. The result is an intriguing, challenging old-school adventure that is just a bit too trying and frustrating. It doesn’t help that it takes more than a few hours to feel immersed and involved, which these days goes over like a lead balloon, anyway.
The game really is surprisingly dark. The developers attempt to lighten the tone every now and then with playful character banter but for the most part, there’s a sinister vibe at the core of Operation Abyss . I don’t mind that at all, provided it’s consistent (and it is), and I’m betting anime lovers will appreciate this unique presentation. On the other hand, too much of the game is very bland. If we’re exploring in a first-person perspective, the creators really need to place more emphasis on our surroundings. Unfortunately, there are a lot of drab, gray backdrops, and the enemy designs aren’t especially impressive, either. Still, one has to applaud the atmospheric tension.
If you’re familiar with such games, you know what to expect from a sound standpoint. The soundtrack is sadly a little too generic and the voice acting ranges from average to good (and a bit of mediocre tossed in), while the effects can take center-stage during battle. Again, you have to adapt to a different style and culture; these voice performances, for example, probably wouldn’t fly in big-budget Western productions. But the voices have a more dramatic, cheesy tinge to them, as they so often do in Japanese games. Fans of the JRPG genre have come to accept the various idiosyncrasies associated with such games. Some may call them flaws or drawbacks; others argue that such traits are charming.
This is a long, in-depth dungeon crawler with a ridiculous amount of customization involved. I’ll get to that in a minute but first, the starting point: As I said above, the game just takes way too long to get going. The pacing is erratic and unappealing in the first four or five hours, which makes you disinclined to continue the adventure. If you can get past this initial tedium, that pacing levels out a little and you can focus on exploration and powering up. The problem is that given those bland environments and steep learning curve, only the die-hard JRPG fanatics will make it past the lengthy introductory phase. Maybe that’s okay, though, as only JRPG fanatics are gonna buy this in the first place.
You have your standard ability and equipment options, but you can also go nuts with character customization. At the start, you can select Basic Mode (which automatically generates a balanced party), or Classic Mode, which gives you the most control over your party members. Both modes offer complete customization of any character’s stats, which I found both unnecessary and extremely tedious. You have to spend so much time examining and considering and tweaking that eventually, you just want to throw up your hands and go, “enough!” Remember, you can have six characters in your party and to be so meticulous about each is just plain annoying. I love depth in my RPGs but this feels more like number-crunching to me.
As for the story, the game is set in a near-future iteration of Japan. The Code Physics Agency, which you’re forced to join at the start, have to set out and – wait for it – save the world. The enemies are called Variants and you must assemble a party of willing, able, and decidedly colorful allies to help cleanse the world of such nastiness. Dungeon design isn’t compelling at all, but at least that blandness is offset by an art style that might keep you intrigued. It almost doesn’t matter if it doesn’t, though, because as you might expect, given the genre, this adventure is all about the gameplay. And that brings me back to the tedium of stat-tweaking and customization. It’s not that I can’t do it or lack patience; it’s that I don’t consider it good game design. That’s all.
The user interface is just plain awful and in retrospect, I’m starting to wonder if the team spent the majority of their budget (which seems quite small) on making the game as statistically challenging as humanly possible. You just have to struggle through it and when you do, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Battles can be very entertaining, especially once you get a firm grasp of the Unity skills, which are cooperative attacks for your teammates. I liked trying to get the most out of my party, and I also liked dealing with tough enemies that reward your planning and tact. That should always be a big part of any solid RPG experience; the game should reward your mind , not your dexterity.
So yeah, I’m good with that. I’m even good with the taxing dungeons that might make some tear their hair out in frustration. I mean, I’ve got a great memory and if you pay attention, they’re not that crazy hard to navigate. Of course, one has to admit that this is a mostly subjective viewpoint, and many might find these dungeons to be simply unfair. And it’s true that some aspects are simply poorly conceived. In the first dungeon, there’s this area with a ton of teleportation tiles. These can be detected if you’ve got a character with such a detection talent; if not, you’ll be searching every single square on the map. If you’re wondering, that’s not a fun time, no matter how you slice it.
I will reiterate, however, that gamers who love the art style, who gravitate toward a detail-oriented challenge, who aren’t put off by number-crunching, and who appreciate the nostalgic nod, will likely enjoy this game. The story is hardly memorable and some of the characters are just plain silly, but you may find yourself interested in the plot. Granted, you have to get past that five-hour bit of tedium to start the game but once you do, you could, feasibly, really connect with the style and gameplay. You are indeed rewarded for having a meticulous nature, and you’ll smile to see your hard work pay off in the end. It’s just a matter of what you’re willing to tolerate, and what you’re not. That’s the crux of the whole issue.
Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy could’ve been a really good game, but it ends up floundering beneath a pile of stats and character management. The menus are mediocre and sifting through your inventory is often irritating. The story is almost as “blah” as the drab environment and the pacing in those first five hours is ridiculous. But those who triumph, those who press beyond the intro and are willing to put up with the explosion of stats and items, will find a rewarding, highly stylized title. After you’ve paid your dues, it really starts to come together, even if the overall design remains lacking throughout. I recommend trying it if you’re a hardcore JRPG fan; otherwise, just avoid at all costs. This isn’t for you.
The Good: Interesting art style. Very deep and loaded with plenty of character customization. Rewarding to the diligent and meticulous. Plenty of content. A nod to the first-person RPG days of yore.
The Bad: Drab, bland backgrounds and design. Low production value overall. Tedious and frustrating UI. Overly deep character customization. Too slow to start.
The Ugly: “I can’t stare at these numbers anymore. I just can’t.”