Operation Darkness is a strategy/fantasy JRPG set in World War II. It’s also the ugliest game we have ever seen on Xbox 360. We salute developer Atlus for trying something different by marrying a strategy JRPG to the World War II setting, but if they’re not going to make a game visually worthy of a next-gen system, why should we get excited about the gameplay? The hodgepodge of different gaming elements thrown into Operation Darkness doesn’t come together to make a game you actually care about. And the lousy graphics drive the proverbial stake through the heart of the game.
Above: "Fugly" just about sums it up... and what's with the crease on the top of her boobs?
The story follows a young blonde British dude by the last name of Kyle (hooray, you get to pick his first name) and his buddy Jude Lancelot (names don’t sound more British than that) as they fight in the trenches of World War II, determined to take vengeance on the Nazis for the deaths of their families in the Blitz. Injured in combat, Kyle is given a blood transfusion from James Gaunt, leader of a black-ops unit called the Wolf Pack. Turns out, Gaunt is a werewolf of the Fang Clan and the blood transfusion slowly changes Kyle into one as the game progresses. Kyle and Lancelot join up with the other supernatural weirdos of the Wolf Pack and go on secret missions to combat Nazis, zombies, vampires and every combination of the three thereof.
The strategy element of the game almost works - instead of drawn-out planning phases and hour-long turns, the combat phase moves quickly and the action-oriented camera feels more like Gears of War than the overhead omniscient kind we normally see in SRPGs. Unfortunately, this sacrifices some of the finer points of strategy - targets are hard to find when you have to pan the camera around manually; the zoomed-in camera angle makes it difficult to judge the range of a weapon from a target, and (worst of all) once you’ve moved a character, you can’t change your mind so one wrong move can blow an entire battle at any point during play. These little snags suck what little fun there might be out of Operation Darkness like so many vampires feeding on a paraplegic and the only way to cope is to get used to the idea of losing a battle once or twice before figuring out a winning strategy.
Above: Werewolf vs... dinosaur's torso?
Where Operation Darkness really blows it is in the integration of all the pieces - the werewolves, WWII and the strategy. The game appeals to several different flavors of gamer without really satisfying any of them. Yes, there are cool vampires and werewolves and supernatural things in the game, but by the time you actually encounter this part of the gameplay (8-10 hours in), the fantasy nerds will have checked out. And when you do get to the supernatural stuff, complete with Dragon Ball Z fireballs and werewolf changelings, the World War II fanatics will be instantly turned off because all their panzerfausts and army-issue rifles don’t add up to jack in the face of poison hexes and wide-range damage spells with over-complicated German names (lest you forget you’re fighting Nazis). Around this time (15 hours in) random second-tier characters start showing up during battles and suddenly it becomes a fight to protect the new character instead of kill the Nazis.
The combat system starts to fall apart the more the supernatural elements of gameplay show up. Once werewolves and spells are introduced, you’ve got to start paying attention to Military Spirit (read: mana) because if you run out, you can’t use any of your magical powers. The only way to heal MS is to get shot to shit (bad idea) or drink water, which takes up room in your inventory in addition to hit point recovery items and extra ammo (which you will desperately need when it comes to bazookas). Despite a character’s strength stat leveling up so that they can carry heavier kinds of items, the number of item spaces never increases, so it becomes a juggling act to keep HP and MS at an ideal level while keeping your guns loaded.
We might’ve been able to overlook that (it is a strategy game, after all), but for the fact that you have to keep slots empty in your inventory so you can raid dead bodies for better gear (because the Allied Forces supply depot only sells crappy stuff). Meanwhile, at this exact same point in the game, the AI starts to get cheap. The Nazis suddenly all have heal spells, an endless supply of tanks, and periodically have crappy things on them when you rob their corpse despite obviously having awesome weapons or items prior to death (which they were totally using on us).
The would-be saving throw for this S/JRPG is the plot. Typical or not, Atlus has never skimped on voice acting and Operation Darkness has some of the most realistic-sounding Scottish, English, Irish, French and German accents you will ever hear in WWII game (your call if that’s a good thing). And like Castle Wolfenstein, you can never deny the savage appeal in sticking it to Hitler and his undead minions, so that element at least works with the plot rather than against it. But the lousy last-gen graphics murder what compelling plot there is. This game is an Xbox 360 exclusive; Atlus has got to do a little better than motionless anime cutouts and gruesome in-game models that only occasionally move their mouths. And while listening to three seconds of footstep sound effects with a dominatrix vampire Nazi onscreen is unintentionally funny, it takes class away from the game instead of adding charm to it.
Above: Notice how her hair clips right through her back
We want to pat Atlus on the head for trying something different; but this isn’t the Girl Scouts and critics don’t give out trying badges. So while we acknowledge Operation Darkness for attempting the extra mile when crafting a unique Xbox 360 strategy RPG, we’ve got to tell you to stick to your PlayStation 2 JRPGs until Atlus gets its act together.
May 15, 2008