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.