I don't know what's gotten into the water coolers at Capcom, but I find the major shift in their output to be somewhat disturbing. They've always had the gift for fast, kinetic games (especially fighters), but lately they seem content producing shallow, repetitive action titles. That's not to say that an emphasis on action is bad—far from it—but their perspective is so tightly focused that they're excluding elements that would make the games more enjoyably rounded. Chaos Legion is Capcom's latest in its recent string of thumb-killers, and though I dare say it's more successful than the last few, it shares the same stunted scope and narrow vision that holds back its siblings.
Borrowing more than a few pages from the Square Soft book of art design, Chaos Legion stars pensive swordsman Sieg Wahrheit in a barren, tech-noir fantasy world. Possessing the ability to equip and command spirit-like beings called Legions, Sieg is on a mission to eliminate a man bringing about the apocalypse. This same malcontent also happens to be his friend, whose love Sieg killed for reasons shrouded in mystery. If this drama seems a bit convoluted, don't spend much time trying to sort it all out. The story is a thin pretense irrelevant to the furious combat comprising the game's true identity.
The hook setting the disc apart from similar efforts is the titular Legions. When equipped (up to two at a time), they enhance performance by granting special abilities; sword-dashing and double-jumping to name just two. This Viagra-like effect aside, the Legions are primarily used as soldiers lending needed numbers to Sieg's one-man army. The concept of using and managing Legions is a solid and promising one, clearly the inspirational core Chaos Legion sprang from.
There are seven types of Legions, each with a different strength. Some are long-distance snipers, some act as shields, and others are more useful against certain types of enemies, present in both flesh and metal flavors. While employing them is vital to progress, there is a trade-off: when accompanied, Sieg's attack power and speed are noticeably diminished. So, the combat becomes not only a strategic balancing act of choosing between Legions, but also between when to use them and when not to.
In my opinion, this surprisingly sophisticated structure is indisputably Chaos Legion's greatest asset. I was confronted with seemingly impossible situations several times throughout play, but using this system for quick and constant tactical changes, the impossible became possible. As a rule of thumb, being surrounded by five immortal swordsmen when wading through a sea of angry spiders is recommended, but it's sometimes more effective to go on unaided surgical strikes. Contrary to outward appearances, the game is not a mindless hack-n'-slash.
Despite my appreciation of the Legion system's deceptive elegance, I'm not saying there aren't problems with it. Foremost, I was dissatisfied being limited to only two Legions at a time. Being able to call any of them at your discretion would have created the possibility for more varied and creative challenges that currently don't exist. Going into a level with the wrong Legion means that you exit, select the right one and go back. Without the appropriate choice, certain enemies are near-impossible to defeat, or you realize too late that you need the double-jump ability with the Legion you left behind. This rule is quite disruptive to the game's flow and feels noticeably artificial.
The other reason I find the two-Legion limit distasteful is that the Legions themselves aren't equally effective. Some (like the swordsmen) see far more action than others, resulting in unselected troops lagging behind in power. Being less powerful makes them less useful, causing them to be neglected even more—a vicious cycle. To rectify this, a sizable amount of leveling up is required. Sadly, in Chaos Legion leveling up means replaying completed sections for experience, which is not especially entertaining. I was able to reach the final leg of the game in about five hours using the swordsmen and archers almost exclusively. They had earned respectable levels, but the other four Legions available (the seventh is hidden) were all at zero. At that point, the idea of going back and replaying conquered missions for hours was the last thing I wanted to do.
If those were the only problems Chaos Legion had, I'd probably be more generous towards it as a first effort. But, nearly every other part of the game has issues. In fact, besides the Legion mechanic, everything about it feels woefully incomplete.
Immediately obvious, the level design and progression are brazenly simple. Broken into small rooms and brief stretches, it's totally compartmentalized into "performance zones" with bold lines of demarcation between them. There are no puzzles, nor any kind of nonviolent tasks. There are no areas to explore, no towns or townsfolk to encounter, and no content that goes towards making the world of Chaos Legion an interesting or atmospheric one. This retro reality reminds me of nothing so much as the classic 1989 brawler Final Fight, and I don't mean that as a compliment. Emphasizing combat to the point that all other interaction is excluded puts the game's technical nature on full display, rather than discreetly woven beneath the skin of characterization and setting, where it belongs.
Graphically, Chaos Legion is no great shakes either. Besides a camera that has trouble keeping up in tight situations, the environments need serious upgrades before they can be called anything besides placeholders. Looking like they were lifted directly from Devil May Cry 2, acre after acre of empty, crumbling castle is what you'll be treated to. Looking past the plot's contrivance of being in a "decimated, war-torn city", the fact is that hours of staring at gray brick walls does nothing to stimulate. With deserted locales feeling like afterthoughts on top of the single-minded dedication to the Legion system, the game grows monotonous and repetitive far earlier than it should. The final sequence of bosses is absurdly difficult as well, reinforcing Chaos Legion as a technical exercise disguised as a game, rather than a game created from a sincere holistic vision.
Stark mastery of skills has its place, but it's a true shame that the developers couldn't shape Chaos Legion into a more compelling experience. I don't deny that the seeds of greatness are present for future iterations, but seeds need to be nurtured in order to flourish and grow. The disc in its current state feels very incomplete, with its full potential going untapped. Capcom may need to generate quick sales after a succession of under-performing sequels, but by my reckoning, releasing underdeveloped games like Chaos Legion is not only a waste of a good concept, it's also likely to further erode its flagging reputation as a premier development house.