Game: Operation Darkness
Genre: Strategy RPG
Platform: Xbox 360
Ever since Operation Darkness was announced for the Xbox 360 last year, I was both excited and hesitant about the game. On the one hand, the 360 could use some variety, and an Atlus-published strategy RPG would really help the console become more than just a first-person shooter machine. On the other hand, while I am a big fan of Atlus, they have had some misses, and I’ve never spent a lot of time with the strategy genre. Still, I eagerly awaited the game’s North American release, and the result was a fun game with a few too many flaws to truly achieve greatness.
Unlike many strategic RPGs set in fantasy worlds, Operation Darkness is set during World War II, and takes place on the battlefields of that epic war. The story is initially told as a series of history lessons, complete with black and white footage of soldiers gearing up for war. The game focuses around a group as soldiers known as the “Wolf Pack”, and once the supernatural elements of the game come into play, you will understand why. At its core, gameplay is on par with that of other tactics games: characters move in turns based on their speed stat, and can either make an attack or use an item on their turn in addition to moving.
At first glance, there are many good things about Operation Darkness. The fights take place on huge battlegrounds, which can seem overwhelming at first, but makes each confrontation that much more rewarding. Though the battles take considerably longer than other games in the genre (many skirmishes easily exceeding an hour), the time flies by fairly quickly with the easy-to-learn and surprisingly addictive gameplay. In addition to standard attacks, characters have some other options, like the very cool ambush attack that allows a character on the defensive to automatically shoot any enemy that comes near him or her. Later in the game, certain characters develop more unique skills that come in handy when fighting Nazis, vampires, and vampire Nazis.
While I wish that I could continue on a positive note, there are, unfortunately, a number of things that Operation Darkness does wrong. First of all, the camera is extremely problematic. The stages are too large to use the standard overhead view, which would be fine if the camera didn’t randomly turn in the complete opposite direction. The player can rotate it at will, which helps, but it is easy to lose track of where you are and where you are looking, which can be annoying. If there was some easier way to change the view, that would have been nice. The difficult camera is not enough to make you stop playing, but it is annoying enough to warrant a complaint.
There are also a few fighting elements that developer Success probably thought made the game challenging, but I personally found inexcusably frustrating. If any of the eight members of the Wolf Pack gets killed during a battle, it’s an automatic game over. Being that each character can only hold a handful of items at one time (and this includes not just healing packs, but ammunition as well), it’s very easy to run out of health restorers during a fight. Therefore, if several members of the opposing side manage to take out one of your characters, you have to start from your previous save point. It’s easy to lose an hour or more of progress this way. Imagine playing a Final Fantasy game and getting a Game Over every time one of your players was knocked out in battle, and you’ll get the picture.
On a similar note, you can recruit other soldiers to join your team for certain battles, and they can level up and gain skills just like the regular Wolf Pack members can. However, if one of these recruited characters is killed in battle and not revived by the time it ends, he or she is lost forever. That’s right—that guy you just spent 20 hours leveling is gone, and you have to recruit another level one player and start all over. This wouldn’t be as aggravating if every character had the power to revive another, but this isn’t the case. In fact, only one of the team is capable of revival, assuming he is within a very close range of the fallen. Since it is quite easy to be taken off-guard with the number of reinforcements, tanks, and hordes of zombies sent your way, this makes for far more Game Overs and restarts than should be necessary.
Graphically, it looks like the game should be on the PS2. In fact, I spent a lot of time wondering why this game was even on the 360 to begin with, since Atlus has done so well on the PS2 in the past. Most of the dialogue is done in the same way as previous Atlus games, with a generic profile image of the character appearing alongside some text. There is voice-acting, but it is definitely not one of the game’s merits. While the environments are large, there is nothing to make you take a second glance.
I can overlook the average graphics, the camera mechanics, and even the sub-par voice-acting. What I can’t accept is that the story, which was supposed to be the most interesting part of the game, is just plain boring. When you’re not getting a generic history lesson straight from the WWII film reels, you are subjected to cheesy dialogue. Even the supernatural elements of the game can’t save this one, and I found myself quickly clicking through the narrative so that I could just get on with the next battle. No matter what genre the game is, I believe that there should always be a decent storyline behind it, but in a game of this nature, it is inexcusable. It’s just appalling that so little effort was put into making Operation Darkness a memorable tale.
There are two ways that the failings of Operation Darkness can be looked at. It could be indicative that Atlus needs to stick with standard RPGs on last-gen systems, or it could be seen as a fun but flawed first attempt at a next-gen title. As an optimist, I’ll hope for the latter, although only time will tell if that is the case. I honestly had a good amount of fun playing this game, found the battle system somewhat addictive, and there were times when two hours flew by like minutes while trying to eradicate the supernatural Nazi force. However, as a reviewer, I can’t ignore everything that this game does wrong, and it does have very many problems. As a discount title or a rental, this game might be worth your time and money, but $60 is way too much for a game that falls so short of the greatness it could have achieved.