Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy was one of my most anticipated games of the year.
Hailing from Experience Inc, the studio behind sensational and sexy dungeon crawler Demon Gaze, it presents a much darker and more interesting storyline than its raucous predecessor. Starting out in a literal cesspool, you'll join a secret organisation of mutant-hunting high schoolers battling to keep the city safe from a rising tide of horrors.
It's a fascinating premise full of complex themes, uncanny characters and creepy situations, a little like Persona meets Blade Runner by way of Tokyo Ghoul. A great excuse for some dungeon crawling. Unfortunately, seeing as Operation Abyss is actually a remake of the ancient Generation Xth trilogy, the story and characters are sometimes buried under some functional but deeply convoluted systems. What matters, then, is whether the dungeon crawling is strong enough to be worth digging back out.
Thankfully, it is.
After being introduced to the setting and its major players, you'll join the Xth (high schoolers by day, government-sanctioned mutant hunters by career) and create an entire squad of six members from scratch. Like the Etrian Odyssey series, you can tweak your party down to their appearance, names and class roles, at least once you've got used to the frankly insane jargon that Operation Abyss throws out on a second-by-second basis.
There's a fascinating and enlightening in-game encylopedia on hand, but it's no substitute for tooltips. Be aware that you'll have to put in a fair few hours before "blood codes," "JWs," "Variants" and "abysses" become second nature to you. To be clear, we're talking about "classes," "crafting components," "monsters" and "dungeons."
It's worth sticking with the default party on your first run as you'll need some of the members to make it through unscathed. The academic will be responsible for detecting doors, disarming traps, identifying items and absolutely everything that doesn't involve killing, whereas the mage and healer will tie up the rest of your back row with... magic and healing. Obviously. Otherwise, fiddle with the front line as you see fit.
Pleasingly, you'll get to choose between using gorgeously detailed static sprites or generic yet equippable mannequins to represent your characters, and I'd recommend the second option. Your characters will all look the same at first, but quickly diversify once equipped with the more outlandish gear and weapons.
Party set up, you'll undertake missions for the Xth and delve into dungeons in time-honored first person style. Etrian Odyssey, Legend Of Grimrock, Dungeon Master and obviously Demon Gaze fans will already know the score as you fumble around, fill out your map and eventually work your way down to the next floor. It's familiar at first and the mundane constantly-recycled background tiles are disappointingly drab, but Operation Abyss makes some interesting changes to the formula.
Dungeons tend to be objective-based and are meticulously designed with some of the most delightful (and brutal) spatial puzzles out there. You'll find hidden doors everywhere. Teleporters linked to other floors in three-dimensional labyrinths. Ghosts. Uncompromising logic puzzles. Zones of complete darkness. Traps, traps, chests with traps, traps aplenty ready to punish any loss of concentration. Puzzles within puzzles. Sometimes you'll even need to complete subquests outside of dungeons to progress, or find a particular set of co-ordinates.
Some will find Operation Abyss obtuse and unnecessarily convoluted. Because that's exactly what it is. As a huge fan of the genre, though, I was delighted that a game was willing to put me through my paces and respect my intelligence. There's a deep and rewarding satisfaction that comes from outthinking a tough challenge, so if you're already nodding your head in agreement, chances are that you and Experience Inc. are on the same wavelength. Exploration is a delight, especially since an auto-walk feature and Dark Souls-inspired messages help to streamline and inform your progress.
In comparison to the devious dungeons, combat is surprisingly brusque. Favouring random battles with familiar first person mechanics, you'll just choose a few basic abilities, spells or defence and then quickly batter through large hordes of foes. Characters target enemies on their own initiative and holding the button down speeds things up over multiple turns. It sometimes feels like an afterthought, but it does a great job of keeping you focused on the dungeon crawling itself.
Naturally there are some tough bosses to strategize over, though, and a quirky strength mechanic that increases enemy strength the longer you stay in a dungeon and the more foes you defeat. Coupled with the fact that you have to return to base to save and level up, it adds a pleasingly tense risk vs reward aspect to the proceedings. Excellent enemy designs and chilling sound effects conspire to create a palpable sense of dread and a thick tense atmosphere,
So the dungeons are great, the combat is functional and the setting is deeply compelling. Sadly, as mentioned, Operation Abyss then tries to make you fall out of love with it as quickly as possible.
The interface is awful: a vexing and counter-intuitive web of nested menus that makes everything take three times longer than it should. Something as simple as equipping or comparing items feels like an ordeal, let alone the more complex peripheral systems like Blood Code resets, levelling, item development and salvage. Considering the streamlined combat, it's a shame that you'll spend a great deal of your time doing busywork.
Speaking of peripheral gameplay systems, there certainly are a lot of them. Chests require you to deactivate traps in a bizarre minigame. Items can be built and scrapped, characters can be respecced and multiclassed, yet none of it is explained as succinctly as it should be. A few subquests go into the basics, but much of the time you'll be left floundering.
This is compounded by the fact that Operation Abyss doesn't understand the difference between information and useful intelligence. It constantly bombards you with a barrage of stats and jargon without explaining their relative importance or even their function, making it difficult to build your characters effectively in the early game. Yet, paradoxically, it often then leaves you with no clear idea of where to go or what to do next. Again, using your brain and thinking around problems is an oft-overlooked joy in and of itself, but Operation Abyss sometimes becomes obnoxiously obtuse.
A few annoying design decisions also pop out of the woodwork. Experience Inc. lazily balanced the bosses by introducing soft level caps that only disappear once you hit certain points in the story, stopping your character progression dead. Wasting so much XP becomes deeply aggravating. A few of the story missions will also throw you into overlong battles or remove your powers for a time.
All of this stems from the fact that the developers decided to remake rather than reimagine their original games, quirky warts and all. More to the point, it also makes Operation Abyss a horrible place to start for genre newcomers and even those who just dabble in dungeon crawlers. Persona Q, Etrian Odyssey Untold or Demon Gaze will welcome you with open arms.
And yet, if you're already a seasoned veteran, everything will suddenly click after a fair few hours of floundering. Obfuscation becomes real depth, a monstrously deep rabbit hole of stats and strategy that you can sink your teeth into for days at a time and fantasise about at work. For a handheld game, it doesn't hold your hand at all, but it's designed for the hardcore as a challenge and a compelling atmospheric thief of time. As such, I bloody love it, even if I can't recommend it to everyone.
- Intricate, devious and atmospheric dungeons are an uncompromising joy to explore
- Streamlined battle system and depth for days
- Unique and compelling setting, great story and memorable characters
- Atrocious interface and poorly explained layered systems
- Lazy recycled background tiles in dungeons
- Often obnoxiously obtuse and confusing; bombards you with useless information
The Short Version: Operation Abyss buries a great dungeon crawler beneath obtuse mechanics and an atrocious interface. Thankfully the story and the sensational dungeon design makes it well worth excavating.
There may be less convoluted and more accessible dungeon crawlers on the market, but if you're a seasoned genre veteran craving something more involved, Operation Abyss has the deadly depth you're looking for.
7 - GOOD: Some sites seem to think that the halfway point between 1-10 is 7. This is not the case. It should be noted that 7 is not just a perfectly respectable score, it's a good score. A 7 is not an indication of failure, nor is it the mark of a bad, poor or even average game. These are titles that can be considered very worthwhile, but maybe come with a caveat. Frequently the domain of the well-made-if-rather-conventional brigade.
Platform: PS Vita (reviewed)
Developer: Experience Inc.